Southbound MoPac, you go next.
On Saturday, with Central Texas drivers and toll authority officials still puzzling over the eccentricities of variable tolls on northbound MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) after its Oct. 7 debut, all 11 miles of the southbound toll lane likewise will open for business. That side of the expressway, unlike northbound MoPac and its legendary late afternoon crunch, has congestion both morning and evening — and an unresolved bottleneck at Lady Bird Lake.
Officials with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority clearly were concerned about how things will go on that side when I talked to them last week.
Could the south quickly surpass the northbound side’s first-week top toll of $8.38 for the entire trip? No way of knowing. Toll agency officials really weren’t expecting that sort of toll spike on the northbound side, at least not initially. But on Oct. 12 it came, including a gobsmacking $6.28 toll for a short while on the north section from Far West Boulevard to Parmer Lane.
And what will happen with the free lanes on MoPac’s southbound side? The results on northbound MoPac were less than inspiring during the first week, at least in the three lanes available to the tight of pocket. Cars in the toll lane, after clearing a brief merge slowdown south of Enfield Road, were zipping along at full speed, while afternoon commuters in the free lanes still had a lot of stop and go.
Political danger lurks in all this.
Toll road advocates have been having some tough innings in Texas over the past couple of years, after a long run of steady bipartisan support in the Legislature and among local officials in the state’s biggest cities (San Antonio aside). After all, the borrow-now-pay-later approach got a lot of big roads built in a big hurry — Central Austin has opened about 145 miles of new tollways since 2006, an astonishing figure — and nothing makes a politician beam more than than cutting highway ribbons.
But anti-toll rumblings among the far right of the Legislature started in 2013, amped up in 2015 and then reached what seemed like critical mass in this spring’s session, with some Democrats jumping off the toll bandwagon as well. Legislation to limit toll fines for late/nonpayers passed (on an amendment introduced by a San Antonio Democrat), and a bill to allow more public/private toll agreements (like the one that produced the troubled southern section of Texas 130) was unexpectedly snuffed out in the House.
The Legislature, beginning with a constitutional amendment that it put before voters in 2014 (which passed), has been restricting certain stacks of highway funding from use on toll projects. And Gov. Greg Abbott, unlike the previous occupant of the mansion on West 11th Street, has been standoffish about tolls.
Meanwhile, west of the Capitol a couple of miles, the MoPac construction project was dragging on two years past its projected end date and costing an extra $30 million, generating an avalanche of driver frustration and negative media coverage. None of this is helpful to the mobility authority, the MoPac toll lanes’ builder and operator, as it seeks to install yet more variable toll lanes on South MoPac and U.S. 183 between MoPac and RM 620.
So this would not be a good time, from the authority’s standpoint, for poor results on the southbound side.
Which brings me to the bridge over Lady Bird Lake. As most people who live southwest know, traffic backs up on that bridge during the afternoon and is a big cause of the congestion on southbound MoPac that extends well north of the river. And that southbound toll lane, although people can bail out just south of Enfield and take a tunnel to Cesar Chavez Street, also will lead directly into that bridge and the creeping cars to be found there during the evening commute.
That raises the ugly possibility that people will pay good money — $3? $6? $10? — to zip 11 miles from Parmer, only to run into a jam well before they exit the toll lane. The queue could even back up enough to block that exit to Cesar Chavez.
Maybe not. We’ll find out soon enough. And it still might be more than worth it to some people to spend 10 minutes or so getting to that slowdown rather than the much longer time it has taken in the free lanes up to now. Or, worse yet, in the free lanes from now on, which would be another problem politically.
Those people driving in the free lanes on both northbound and southbound MoPac, a constantly morphing congregation that no doubt will include some people who are in the toll lanes on other days, over time could begin to be angered that four years of construction and the addition of a fourth lane somehow didn’t improve their commute all that much.
Again, all of this will be much clearer by the end of next week and clearer still after a few months. Drivers, in both directions and during both rush hours, will be experimenting with navigating MoPac in and out of the toll lane, and at different times. Some people who in the past two weeks began using the highway again for commuting — anecdotally, mobility authority officials say they’ve heard of suddenly lighter parallel traffic on Lamar Boulevard and Exposition Boulevard — might go back to other routes.
And toll officials, who have been manually overseeing the variable toll software even as the system itself builds real-world experience with MoPac driver behavior, in time could be able to optimize toll rates and traffic. We all should probably avoid making snap judgments about how this new traffic creature is working.
But before very long, a new normal will become clear. What happens next with Central Texas tolling will depend on how different that picture is from the one we’ll all been living with on MoPac.