Getting onto southbound MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) from Winsted Lane was never a breeze, Mark Shewmaker says, with cars moving at 10 to 15 mph along the half-mile from Enfield Road to an entrance ramp for MoPac.
But highway officials over the weekend restriped MoPac and took away a dedicated lane for that entrance from Winsted, instead allocating it to the new toll lane.
Starting Monday, Shewmaker said, the afternoon commute along Enfield and Winsted went from passable to truly lousy. His drive home to the Oak Hill area from his office at 15th and Guadalupe streets abruptly increased by 20 minutes, he said.
“Now you inch forward two cars lengths at a time” on Winsted, said Shewmaker, who works in the investment business. “Since Enfield is a major east-west artery from downtown, I just don’t see how that is a good idea. It just makes everyone’s commute who has to drive that road much worse than it was. And there’s no reasonable alternative.”
Officials with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which is in charge of the MoPac toll construction, said the swap of the highway lane from the free ramp to the express toll lane — set to open Saturday — has been a part of the design since the project was first conceived a decade ago. The website for the MoPac Improvement Project includes a computer-generated video of the toll lane, and an engineering schematic of the project, and both show the express lane feeding into a dedicated lane and Winsted with a merge.
Furthermore, mobility authority officials said, the new configuration is the safer option and aligns with typical highway design.
“Normally a ramp has to merge when it comes into a major highway like this,” said Steve Pustelnyk, director of community relations for the mobility authority, noting that is the case on most of southbound MoPac’s other entrances northward to RM 2222 and beyond. The crunch on southbound MoPac’s four-lane bridge over Lady Bird Lake, Pustelnyk said, generally causes afternoon slow-and-go traffic for several miles north of the river.
Had the striping remained the same near the Winsted entrance, Pustelnyk said, what is expected to be high-speed traffic from the toll lane would have to come to a sudden stop to merge into a lane of much slower MoPac traffic.
But the change, and the timing, leaves the inevitable impression that paying drivers coming from North Austin have been given preference over the nonpaying clientele commuting from downtown and the University of Texas.
“Either way, this is a problem for everybody driving the southbound MoPac corridor,” Pustelnyk said. “And the backups won’t be resolved until we add capacity on the bridge, and south of the bridge.”
That project to add toll lanes to the bridge and to South MoPac, which had been in the environmental study stage in 2013 and 2014, slowed down and then stopped in 2016 after a lawsuit challenged it. The environmental study resumed after a federal judge ruled in the mobility authority’s favor this summer.
But that South MoPac toll project won’t offer help anytime soon for the many people who used Enfield and the Winsted ramp in the afternoon to head for points south and southwest.
On Wednesday, the ramp was still clear at 3:30 p.m., with commuters along Winsted moving up and over the long entrance bridge to southbound MoPac with noticeable slowing. But in a 10-minute period, starting about 3:40 p.m., the stackup on the bridge progressed several hundred yards back onto Winsted and then over a hill toward Enfield. At 4:15 p.m., vehicles were queued all the way to Enfield, and some Enfield drivers couldn’t make the turn to the south on Winsted because there was no room in the line.
Cars over the next hour, timed by the American-Statesman, took from 10 minutes to 14 minutes to move that half-mile and join the slow flow on MoPac.
Pustelnyk said that when such highway changes occur, initial crunches like the one at Winsted and MoPac usually ease within a few weeks as people seek out alternative ways to commute. That could be difficult in this case, however, because the other routes to Southwest Austin from downtown — West Sixth Street, West Cesar Chavez Street, Lamar Boulevard, South First Street — are already heavily congested in the afternoon.
“Typically Enfield was bad anyway,” Shewmaker said. “Now I think it’s going to be bumper to bumper backed up to Guadalupe every day.”