Shorter drive times mirror projections along new MoPac toll lane

Northbound MoPac, where drivers can enter the express lanes. (Robert Maxwell, KXAN)
Northbound MoPac, where drivers can enter the express lanes. (KXAN Photo/Robert Maxwell)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Nearly three months after the opening of Austin’s first express lane segment on North MoPac, drive times on the freeway remain faster than before commuters had the option of the pay-to-drive lane. And projections for the next 20 years fall in line with that new pattern for both paying and non-paying commuters, an examination of public records shows.

Prior to the express lane opening in mid-October, a volume of 180,000 cars a day meant it took an average 19-minutes to move from Farm to Market 2222 to West Parmer Lane. That drive has now turned into seven minutes in the new express lane. Even better, drivers in the main lanes (who aren’t paying a toll fee) are also enjoying shorter times on that northernmost stretch, completing it in about eight minutes, according to figures from the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), citing a one day sample of Oct. 24. Numbers show weekdays in the first month it was open, more than 22,000 drivers used the completed lane.

While projection data show travel times in the main lanes will continue to increase in coming years, the crux of this Central Texas transportation experiment is maintaining an open reliability lane at any cost. That will be important as the daily number of cars nearly doubles by 2030 to 320,000. MoPac (named for the Missouri-Pacific railway line that divides the north and southbound lanes in places) was constructed in the 1970s and has seen steady expansion as Austin has grown up around it.

“We want to keep [the express lane] at free flow speed,” explained Greg Mack, assistant director of the Tolls System during KXAN’s recent visit to the operations center at the CTRMA’s Cedar Park offices. “We want to keep the lane clear and good travel times. So at maximum, we could put about 1,700 cars [an hour] in there. And we’ve been averaging during the afternoon peak time [which starts at 4:30 p.m. weekdays] about 1,000 cars.”

A CTRMA technician watches the flow in the MoPac Express lanes. (Robert Maxwell, KXAN)
A CTRMA technician watches the flow in the MoPac Express lanes. (Robert Maxwell, KXAN)

One 2012 study showed by 2035 the single express lane should still be proving its worth. Drivers who pay will be able to make the 11.2-mile stretch between Cesar Chavez Street to west Parmer Lane in just 11.5 minutes. Another option that was considered, an HOV lane (where vehicles must have two or more riders), would have taken a minute longer.

The study also projected in 20 years, trips in North MoPac’s main lanes will take about 44 minutes, measurably better than the up-to 60 minutes projected if no new lanes had been built at all.

“In this town, with limited corridors and environmental features and neighborhoods backed up to roads, you better figure out how to make that corridor smarter. I think that’s what we’re trying to do with this, make it more efficient, said Mike Heiligenstein, CTRMA Executive Director.

The Cost of Efficiency

That efficiency comes from variable toll rates aimed at keeping traffic flowing at a minimum speed through the express lane, in the case of MoPac that’s 45 mph. If vehicles are slowing below that mark and bunching up, the tolls continue to rise to dissuade more drivers from entering the lane.

Every five minutes, a computer analyzes data collected from sensors located every quarter to half-mile and determines how much the toll should cost. The traffic control system can also be managed manually based on staff observations from a bank of monitors and screens showing various parts of the express lane system.

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The newest figures show posted tolls for the MoPac express lane average 53 cents (at 867 vehicles an hour) from the base of 25 cents. The toll could rise to $4 for a one-way trip, although CTRMA bosses say they’re unable to predict when. At the moment, the opened northbound segment has yet to reach capacity that would trigger such a hike. The most anyone has been charged was on Nov. 1 after a tractor trailer jackknifed forcing the main lanes to close. Drivers rerouted to the toll lane paid 75 cents. When someone crashes in the actual toll lane, CTRMA staff say they have contingency plans that include warning drivers with electronic signage posted well before the entrance.

Commuters like Austin’s Amy Olivarez are still considering when they will jump aboard the faster ride. CTRMA has marketed the lanes as a way to get to your destination (like your child’s choir practice) once or twice a week when you’re short on time. In fact, so far, CTRMA figures show 67 percent of express lane drivers take the MoPac express just once a week.

“I’ve seen it though and I’ve seen cars whiz by and I think about it and I’m like ‘meh, [I’ll] just keep to my own routine,’” explained Olivarez, admitting it’s annoying to chug along in a red river of brake lights doing 25 mph, but “you kind of get used to it.”

Currently there are 500,000 toll tags in the Austin-region.

Where do your toll fees go?

In 2012, the Texas Department of Transportation doled out $130 million in federal transportation funds for road projects aimed at cutting congestion. Years of planning studies on the MoPac express lanes had already been done, so it fit the bill. Total cost of the project: $199.5 million with TxDOT picking up the difference.

And that money will continue to work for Central Texans thanks to a unique arrangement CTRMA made three years ago with the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO). As part of the partnership arrangement, the Mobility Authority agreed to set up a Regional Infrastructure Fund. Over the next 25 years, CTRMA will deposit $230 million [from toll revenues] into the fund. Heiligenstein suggests that balance could be achieved sooner and will have a better idea once the entire project is open.

CAMPO can then allocate money from the fund to other transportation projects in the region—tolled or non-tolled. Those projects could include adding two express lanes to US 183 North from MoPac to old 620/Lakeline Boulevard and widening Interstate 35 through Austin.

Currently, CTRMA is overseeing major improvements to US 183 to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport as well as 16 miles of planned express lanes on South MoPac. The MoPac South project is still in the environmental phase and currently in a lawsuit, so timing is an open question based on the outcome of the lawsuit.

Also recently, crews broke ground on SH 45 to the south that will link South MoPac to Farm to Market 1626 at the Hays County line.

At a November meeting, CTRMA staff told the Board of Directors average weekly transactions totaled $5,000-6,000.

The next segments of the MoPac express lanes are set to open in the first half of 2017, more than three years after contractors first broke ground on the 11-mile project.

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