First phase of MoPac express lane project opens this summer

The No. 1 question people have for Steve Pustelnyk, also known as “MoPac Man,” is when are the MoPac express lanes going to be finished?

Pustelnyk is director of community relations for the the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which is overseeing construction of the MoPac Improvement Project. Exactly when the project will wrap up is still unknown but it is likely to be the end of 2016.

“There’s so just many unknowns, and with the history of the project it’s difficult to pick exact dates,” Pustelnyk said.

The MoPac project aims to provide free-flowing traffic in at least one lane for public transit, vanpools and emergency vehicles. The project will add one express, or toll, lane in both directions between Parmer Lane and Cesar Chavez Street.

The first section of the project on northbound MoPac between RM 2222 and Parmer will open this summer. The southbound section north of RM 2222 will not open until later in the year, Pustelnyk said. The project faced setbacks early on in construction and was ultimately delayed in opening by a year.

“As the project progresses we may see a phased opening,” he said. “It may be all of northbound opens before all of southbound. It really will just depend on how the contractor finishes up the job and what’s ready and when.”

‘Free’ vs. tolled

The Mobility Authority opted to build toll lanes because adding so-called free or nontolled lanes would not relieve congestion, Pustelnyk said.

“We would not be able to manage the traffic in [a nontolled] lane so it would become congested very quickly, and that would defeat the value of providing enhanced transit in the corridor over the long term,” he said.

This is because of pent-up demand, he said. Because of existing congestion, drivers choose other parallel routes to MoPac. If the new lanes were nontolled, those drivers would start using MoPac and fill in the new capacity, he said.

“A free lane would only offer a short-term benefit of maybe a year or two,” Pustelnyk said.

On the Mobility Authority’s other facilities drivers pay a fixed toll that does not change. MoPac will use express toll lanes that have a variable toll, meaning the price will increase as traffic increases to discourage use and keep the express lanes free-flowing. The price would decrease as traffic decreases to encourage use.

This is how the Mobility Authority would manage congestion, Pustelnyk said.

“We really felt that in a corridor where additional expansion was highly unlikely that it was very critical that we maintain free-flowing traffic in at least one of those lanes so emergency vehicles won’t be delayed [and] people who choose to ride a bus or to vanpool can count on getting to their destination without delay,” he said.

Variable tolling

Many factors will go into how the toll rate fluctuates with traffic. Throughout the corridor, vehicle detection sensors will be spaced every 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile to relay the number of vehicles per hour in both the nontolled lanes and express lanes, said Tim Reilly, director of toll operations for the Mobility Authority.

That information will be fed into an algorithm used to set the toll price, he said. The agency will also use traffic cameras and staff members to ensure the algorithm is working and make adjustments as needed.

“Algorithms are not foolproof,” Reilly said. “For example, if someone has a flat tire in the lane that will start slowing traffic up, and the algorithm will look at it and think there’s congestion in that lane and will want to increase the tolls. We’ll have cameras and … get an alert when something like that happens.”

The minimum price for the toll will be $0.25 per segment, and the corridor has two segments in each direction. The board of directors for the Mobility Authority did not set a maximum price for the toll, but the agency anticipates it will average $2-$3 per segment during peak periods.

The speed limit in the express lanes will be 65 mph, and the goal is to keep traffic flowing above 45 mph. During peak periods, the express lanes will handle 1,500-2,000 vehicles per hour, Reilly said.

The express lanes will not be intended for daily use, and drivers will decide to use them when they need to be somewhere important, such as a work meeting, concert or to pick up their child from day care, Pustelnyk said.

“It’s really intended for days when you have a high-priority trip and you can’t afford to be late,” he said.

Mode of choice

The Mobility Authority has an agreement with Capital Metro to allow its Express buses and registered vanpools to drive on the MoPac express lanes for free.

Capital Metro has three Express bus routes—982, 983 and 987—that use MoPac to transport commuters from the Leander, Lakeline and Northwest Austin areas to The University of Texas, the Capitol Complex and downtown Austin.

Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development, said the agency has to limit the number of trips and operation hours because of congestion. However, in January Capital Metro is proposing to expand the hours and number of trips on those routes, he said. The changes still need to go through the public input process this summer and receive approval by Capital Metro’s board in September.

Capital Metro is also proposing to add two new Express bus routes, 980 and 981, as well as a new Park & Ride facility near the intersection of Howard Lane and MoPac, Hemingson said. Route 980 would serve the Howard MetroRail station and the new Park & Ride. Route 981 would serve the Pavilion and Great Hills Park & Ride locations, Hemingson said.

Route 982 likely would still exit at 35th Street to serve the UT area, but Route 987 could continue on to downtown Austin instead of exiting at 35th Street.

“We should be able to deliver substantially higher-quality and more reliable service and at a faster speed than in other cities that have similar services with a managed lane,” Hemingson said. “[We hope] to get to where you want on a bus faster than in your own car.”