Use of the MoPac toll lanes has been steadily growing in the seven months since the lanes opened throughout their entire 11-mile lengths, but it is falling slightly short of a first-year estimate made before construction began.
Revenue from the added lanes on each side of North MoPac Boulevard, due to variable toll rates that on average have been higher than expected, has at least met expectations this spring and could exceed them when the agency begins in earnest to pursue unpaid tolls.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see the numbers bump up a bit” as collections efforts step up, said Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, the MoPac toll lane operator.
The toll lanes averaged about 39,700 toll transactions each weekday in May — a driver might incur one or two transactions on a single trip — a figure that has steadily climbed from about 29,200 per weekday in January. That is about 5 percent below the 41,600 transactions predicted in a “traffic and revenue” study done by a mobility authority consultant in 2011.
But weekday transactions exceeded that predicted figure six times in May. And, after an expected summertime slump, assuming continued growth similar to what happened in recent months, toll lane traffic could move above the target this fall.
As for what drivers are experiencing on the road, the authority’s figure indicates that those willing to pay at rush hour are saving up to 25 minutes on a single trip. As drivers who had been using alternative routes during construction have returned to MoPac, though, the free lanes are now seeing little noticeable improvement from what they were experiencing before and during the road’s expansion.
About half of the northbound toll lane opened in October 2016. The rest of that lane and all of the southbound toll lane did not begin operation until a year later, this past October. Work on aesthetic improvements, as well as sound wall construction and repairs, continues and might not be completed until the end of this year.
A 2011 study predicted that the toll lanes would bring in about $36,100 a day during their first year of full operation, which at the time of the study was expected to be 2016. The toll lanes in March, April and May brought in a total of $3.45 million, or about $37,500 a day.
MoPac is Austin’s first toll road with variable toll rates. The amount paid in the southern section, south of Far West Boulevard, and the northern section change as often as every five minutes based on readings by more than 50 traffic sensors. The heavier traffic gets in both the free lanes and in the toll lanes, the higher the tolls go. The point is to dampen usage of the toll lanes at such times to maintain a speed of at least 45 mph in the toll lanes.
Toll rates since the beginning of the year have averaged $1.06 per transaction (or $2.12 to travel the full length, which includes two sections that each have a tolling point). The 2011 study had predicted an average toll rate of 87 cents in the first year.
That average toll rate includes long stretches when traffic is lighter on MoPac, and the toll rates remain at their minimum of 25 cents for each of the two sections. The average is pulled up by the rush hour periods, when tolls for each section have been spiking to $5 or more.
The road in its first year, based on the spring number, could bring in well over $10 million in toll revenue, a figure that would be well above what the mobility authority will spend on operations, maintenance and a debt owed to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, or CAMPO. The authority got $130 million from CAMPO for construction, a loan it agreed to pay off over 22 years.
The agency could use those surpluses, Heiligenstein said, for the proposed South MoPac and U.S. 183 North toll projects, or perhaps to further improvements along North MoPac. The agency, Heiligenstein said, also could pay off the CAMPO debt early, perhaps by selling bonds, money that could then be used on other transportation projects in Central Texas.