Wear: The numbers — and all those Fords — tell the story of MoPac toll lanes

10:11 a.m. Friday, Dec. 15, 2017 Local
Nick Wagner
Drivers in the MoPac toll lanes pay a variable toll that rises as the lane becomes more congested. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The people running the MoPac toll lanes want you to know, first of all, that the new ribbons of pavement segregated behind plastic pylons aren’t merely “Lexus lanes.”

During a wide-ranging presentation to the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority board on the toll lanes’ first six weeks of full-fledged operations, officials included a chart showing the top five vehicle makes spotted since the two toll lanes on MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) were fully online in late October after four years of much-delayed construction.

Leading the way: Ford, with 15 percent.

Toyota was next with 14 percent, then Chevrolet at 11 percent.

Lexus models were not on that short version of the list, but mobility authority Deputy Executive Director Jeff Dailey noted (mischievously, it seemed) that Lexus came in 10th place with just 3 percent of the cars in the pay-to-drive lanes.

My first thought was, “Wait: they’re tracking vehicle types?!?” One only hopes they’re not likewise tabulating the percentage of people not wearing pants, drumming on the steering wheel or staring vacantly into space. Or any number of behaviors that of course do not apply to me.

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But, those Orwellian possibilities aside, a newsroom colleague noted that the vehicle brand mix should be properly compared with the percentage of such cars in the overall fleet on Central Texas roads. I don’t have ready access to such details. But I can tell you that, in the most recent U.S. sales figures I could find, Ford was at 15.8 percent of the sales market and Lexus was at 1.9 percent.

So, by that (very) rough measure, Fords would be slightly underrepresented in the MoPac lanes, and Lexus overrepresented.

But I quibble. Using a longer list the mobility authority supplied, we can say that so far about 89 percent of the vehicles in the toll lanes are NOT a Lexus, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Infiniti or Audi. But that doesn’t change the underlying reality, which is that people of means can more comfortably choose to take the lane — and pay as much as $9.64 for the northbound evening trip — than those on the economic margins. Some of those Fords, no doubt, are Expeditions rather than ancient Fiestas.

We can also make a number of other statements, based on the data from the authority:

• Use of the lanes has been climbing. On average, there were 29,338 toll transactions per weekday the first week, versus 32,537 in the first week of December. That’s about an 11 percent increase.

• The toll lanes are (pretty much) hitting the goal of maintaining a speed of 45 mph or more. And, on average, vehicles in the northbound toll lane are going about 27 mph faster than those in the free lanes alongside.

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• Almost 125,000 unique vehicles have used the toll lanes so far, but a good many of them were just visiting. The mobility authority said that 61 percent of vehicles have appeared on a MoPac toll lane just once so far. And only 474 vehicles have used a MoPac toll lane more than 20 times in the first 30 or so work days since their full opening.

• The average toll rates for the entire 11-mile trip: morning southbound, $1.21; morning, northbound, 56 cents; evening southbound, $2.06; and evening northbound, $3.63.

• But the top rates during those various rush hours are much higher: morning southbound, $5.97 on Nov. 28; morning northbound, $1.36 on Nov. 8; evening southbound, $7.35 on Nov. 9; and evening northbound, that eyebrow-lifting $9.64 I mentioned above. That highest rate occurred — for four minutes, the agency says — on Nov. 8 also.

• The toll transaction totals so far generally have fallen slightly below predictions of about 13,000 a day for the northern section (Far West Boulevard to Parmer Lane) and 22,000 a day for the segment south of Far West. But the revenue, because the toll rates have run above predictions, has been much higher than the $15,000 a day estimated for the northern section and $12,000 a day for the southern section.

• The effect on morning traffic southbound, as I reported back in early November, has been overwhelmingly positive, based on traffic “heat” maps presented at the meeting. Backups that used to run between 45th Street and Steck Avenue, and would last from about 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m., have virtually disappeared other than on days when there is a wreck. Drivers in that direction now save about 20 minutes, versus the situation before construction, when they travel from Parmer to Cesar Chavez Boulevard.

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• The southbound evening situation is a mixed bag, with backups not extending as far north as before (to 45th rather than north of RM 2222) but are becoming more severe near Lady Bird Lake than historically.

• Northbound, the morning was never really much of a problem. But in the evenings, a longtime pain for MoPac commuters, the effect has been positive but subtler. Backups are shorter in length and duration, and average speeds higher, compared with September 2013 (before construction) and September 2017, during the last stages of construction.

• Overall use of MoPac is up, compared with both 2011 (before construction) and just prior to the full opening of the lanes. At Enfield Road, 152,000 vehicles are now using the highway daily, 8.6 percent higher than in 2011. At RM 2222, the count is up 3.4 percent since 2011, to 164,000 vehicles a day. Austin’s population, I should point out, has gone up about 15 percent during that six-year interval.

• And at Braker Lane, near the Domain and the dense development that has occurred over the past decade, the daily traffic count now of 134,000 is up 46 percent over the 92,000 a day six years ago.

And then there’s the Winsted Lane situation, the MoPac project’s most troubling side effect. As I reported, the mobility authority just before the southbound toll lane opened changed the southbound lane configuration just north of Lake Austin Boulevard, removing a dedicated lane for people entering from Winsted and awarding it instead to the toll lane coming from the north.

RELATED: On southbound MoPac, toll lane drivers win, Winsted drivers lose

The effect has been profound — as in, profoundly bad — on people coming from West 15th Street and heading to South Austin via MoPac. The time needed to get on southbound MoPac from Enfield at West Lynn Street, formerly 25 to 30 minutes, has increased by about 10 minutes, the agency says.

Mike Heiligenstein, the authority’s executive director, said his staff is looking at a number of options to alleviate the situation, including restriping MoPac’s shoulder to in effect restore the dedicated lane for the Winsted entrance. But that would mean those entering from Lake Austin Boulevard would have to merge with that new piece of lane, potentially increasing what are already bad backups at that intersection.

We’ll see what, if anything, the mobility authority can concoct to defeather that albatross.