South MoPac toll stays 4 lanes as CAMPO approves long-range plan

Prepare to slow down some more.

Central Texas officials Monday approved a 25-year, $35.1 billion transportation plan for the area that, despite a goal of mitigating the city’s road congestions with $4.3 billion to improve Interstate 35 and $13.5 billion to expand and operate bus and rail transit, will most likely fail to prevent slower speeds by 2040 on the area’s already poky roads.

According to the 266-page plan approved 19-0 by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board, with Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt abstaining, average afternoon commuting speeds on I-35 would decrease from nearly 40 mph in 2010 to about 23 mph in 2040. Even the area’s toll roads — at this point ridiculed for being underused — would see congestion, the plan says, with afternoon speeds going from a 77 mph average in 2010 to 41 mph by 2040.

The reason: more people, a lot of them, with most of them arriving with driver’s licenses rather than pacifiers and rattles. The CAMPO plan foresees the population in the six-county area centered on Austin more than doubling from about 2 million now to 4.1 million in 2040, with 84 percent of the growth due to in-migration rather than births.

Growth from migration taxes a transportation system years sooner than so-called “natural” growth from births because more of the new faces are adults.

Even with 400 local road and state highway expansion projects at a cost of about $18.6 billion over the plan’s 25 years, the total number of lane-miles in Central Texas is expected to increase just 14.1 percent by 2040. Meanwhile, the miles traveled by vehicles on a daily basis would go up 117.6 percent, the report says, meaning the demand on the roads would go up about eight times faster than the supply.

Metropolitan planning organizations, formed under federal law, must do a top-to-bottom update of long-range transportation plans every five years, and generally projects of any size must be in the plan to move forward. But the plans may be amended, and often are, at any time between those five-year mileposts.

During its meeting Monday, the CAMPO board also stuck with its South MoPac Boulevard plan to add two toll lanes to each side between Lady Bird Lake and Slaughter Lane. Austin Mayor Steve Adler withdrew what he called a “nonsubstantive” amendment — which would have added the language that the project would involve adding “up to and including two lanes in each direction” — because of concerns that the addition might throw the entire plan into limbo.

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is studying several alternatives, including adding just one lane to each side of South MoPac. The four-lane version carries an estimated cost of $353 million, and construction could begin as early as 2017.

The agency has seen something of a community uprising over the past few months after preliminary plans showed flyover bridges on MoPac at Lady Bird Lake. Authority officials say they are now looking for more aesthetically acceptable alternatives to those flyovers.

The CAMPO plan is a broad overview and doesn’t address construction details such as the flyovers.

Texas 45 Southwest, a proposed 3.6-mile tollway that would connect South MoPac to FM 1626, remained in the long-range plan as well. That project, in the works since the late 1980s, is unpopular with environmental activists because most of it would lie over the recharge zone of the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer.

But it has received environmental clearance and final design is underway. No board member moved to take it out of the plan.

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