North MoPac, you’ve changed on me.
But I may be catching the old expressway just as she loses her evil bite.
The “boulevard” and I go way back. All the way to the beginning, as a matter of fact.
I was in my last year at the University of Texas in November 1975 when the first section of the non-looping Loop 1 opened up (to the consternation of at least some West Austin folks). I even wrote a song about the road and the flap over it, set to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s “High Hopes,” for a music revue I was in on East Sixth Street at the time. Very long story that I’ll spare you, other than to say my lyrics completely bungled the politics of the thing. Hey, I was in college.
Anyway, when the road debuted (only from Bee Cave Road to Northland Drive) you could have landed a small plane on it much of the time without causing injury or incident. Then I left town for 18 years. When I first came back in 1994 to work for this newspaper I bunked for a few weeks in the spare bedroom of my old friend Mark Jones, who lived then off Greystone Drive in Northwest Hills. So my first commutes to the American-Statesman began with a majestic view of a much humbler downtown skyline at the entrance ramp near Far West Boulevard.
I remember that I had a lot of company on the road those mornings and afternoons, but that we motored along at something close to full speed. Then I lived in Allandale from 1996 to 2000. By the end of that stint the commute, especially in the afternoon and particularly at the entrance from West Cesar Chavez Street, was getting a bit difficult. But my total trip on the highway was just four miles, and most days was more than tolerable.
From 2006 to 2008, when I lived near Spicewood Springs Road and Loop 360, North MoPac and I were again reunited. By then, MoPac was entrenched as a problem child, and I coped (as so many did then and still do) through a series of guesses and neighborhood “shortcuts.” The highway had become a daily contest of will and wile. Sometimes I won. Mostly I lost.
But for the past nine years, MoPac north of the river has not been part of my daily commute. I lived near Loop 360 and South MoPac for six years, then in Mueller (hello, Interstate 35) for three. Which means I mostly missed the glory that has been the way-way-overdue MoPac Improvement Project. Until this past week.
My wife and I just moved over a three-day weekend to a home near Anderson High. So Tuesday, North MoPac and I were once again a team. Or, really, combatants. And it is evident that I am out of practice.
I left work that first afternoon and rashly headed north on the Congress Avenue bridge. It took me about 15 minutes to make it to the Capitol, and 27 minutes to weave my way to MoPac and Windsor Road. Once I got on the highway, it wasn’t necessarily insufferable — we moved along at 5 to 20 mph through West 35th, then it opened up — but I got a leisurely view of the work on the toll lane project and sound walls. The thought occurred that I needed to get to MoPac sooner.
But relief is on the way, at least to the extent each of us is willing and able to pay it.
Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority officials told me later in the week — and despite all the months and years of wildly optimistic estimates, they sounded convinced — that the toll lanes will open in September (of 2017, just to be clear). First the northbound lane from the lake to Far West (it’s already open north of there) and then, about a week later, the entire southbound toll lane.
Journalistic tradition demands that I write the words, “we’ll see” at this point. We’ll see.
And we’ll see if it was worth the $200 million or so cost and especially all the construction-related traffic hell, particularly to the people who, unlike me, have experienced it on a daily basis the whole 40-plus months of lane closures, lane switches, bumpy pavement, narrowed stretches and inexplicable backups at odd times. Evil MoPac indeed.
For what it’s worth, I really do think that the express toll lanes and their fluctuating toll rates will make a big difference, and not just to the people willing to pay. Putting something like a fourth of the existing traffic into the new lanes should really loosen up the free lanes as well. That has certainly been the case on the part of the toll project that opened up last October, the northbound section from Far West to Parmer Lane.
Even back in 2008, the last time I was a regular MoPac victim, the afternoon crunch usually didn’t break up until north of 45th Street. And in the years since, when my football referee duties have sent me northwest during rush hour, northbound MoPac had only seemed worse in the afternoon, with slow and go often extending almost to Far West. Since the toll lane opened, however, I’ve found myself sometimes going 50 mph or more by Hancock Drive.
I know what people will say, with the floating toll rates: Nobody is going to be willing to pay $4 to take that toll lane in the afternoon. Well, if that happens, the system will respond and charge $3.50. Still not many takers? $3, and so on until the price is right for enough people to bring in appreciable volume to the toll lane. At this point, we don’t know what that price point will typically be.
Up north on the existing toll lane, where traffic is much lighter and the free lanes flow well, the toll rate during afternoon rush has generally hovered around 50 cents. The rest of the time it rests at the minimum, 25 cents to make that six-mile trip. The authority has been seeing about 20,000 toll transactions a week in the lane, or about 4,000 each weekday.
But diversion of even that small slice of MoPac’s traffic volume has eased traffic.
The toll lanes could help away from MoPac as well, on those cut-through streets many of us have turned to in frustration. With MoPac flowing better, more drivers will take a chance on the expressway and the toll lanes. Of course, that means “induced” demand, in transportation parlance. That is, added highway capacity draws in added drivers, muting the positive effect of the extra lanes.
Will this be the magic bullet for MoPac congestion, at least for a few years?
We’ll find out soon. Really.