State Sen. Kirk Watson, panelists discuss MoPac South express lanes

Kirk Watson MoPac South panel

From left: Panelists Mike Heiligensten of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, Ginger Goodin of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and Chris Tomlinson of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority answer questions from state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) about the MoPac South express lanes project. (via Joseph Basco/Community Impact Newspaper)

The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce hosted a transportation panel Nov. 3 to discuss six concepts under consideration for the MoPac South project from downtown to Southwest Austin that use variable toll express lanes.

The six concepts propose building either one or two express lanes in each direction of MoPac South from Cesar Chavez Street to Slaughter Lane. Other variables include elevated ramps to and from Cesar Chavez and elevated ramps near Barton Skyway. The cost estimates range from $275 million for one express lane without a direct downtown connection to $350 million for two express lanes with a direct downtown connection, according to the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which is proposing the project.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, moderated the panel discussion with representatives from the Mobility Authority, Texas A&M Transportation Institute and Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, all of whom explained the benefits of express lanes, such as the ones proposed for the MoPac South project and currently under construction on MoPac between Parmer Lane and Cesar Chavez.

Mobility Authority Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein explained existing traffic congestion issues and challenges on MoPac South.

“We know from our modeling that a South MoPac trip from La Crosse Avenue or Slaughter Lane to [Lady Bird Lake] is going to take an additional 30-40 minutes in the next 10-15 years,” Heiligenstein said. “If we don’t do something, we’re going to see very unreliable travel times”

Heiligenstein said express lanes lanes could alleviate traffic on the nontolled lanes because two express lanes in each direction can carry between 25,000 and 30,000 vehicles per day. Heiligenstein also differentiated between building one or two express lanes.

“If we only build one express lane, the cost and pricing of that express lane will be much, much greater than if we build two,” Heiligenstein said. “While I believe we’re building Chevrolet or Ford lanes, if we only go with one lane, we’re building a Cadillac lane, and I don’t think that’s right. I think we’re doing a disservice to the citizens of Austin to do just one lane.”

Ginger Goodin, director of the Transportation Policy Research Center at Texas A&M Transportation Institute, said there are 29 express lane projects nationwide, 10 of which are in Texas cities.

“Variable tolling is a very powerful tool, the most powerful tool I think in managing congestion to ensure that you have that level of performance, whether it’s achieving 45 mph [traffic flow]or whatever the performance measure is,” Goodin said.

Watson said variable tolling means the cost of the toll increases or decreases as traffic increases or decreases, respectively, during the day to achieve a consistent 45 mph traffic flow on the express lanes, he said.

Chris Tomlinson, executive director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and State Road and Tollway Authority, said express lanes made sense in the Atlanta area because it is about “managing demand” for the limited space and resources available. Tomlinson said express lane tolls in the Atlanta area range from $0.16 to $11.

Tomlinson said tolls can reach $11 because traffic counts have grown in the last several years in Atlanta and only one express lane was constructed. He added that he wished two express lanes had been built.

After the panel discussion, Watson said the MoPac South project could be beneficial to Southwest Austinites.

“Anybody who lives in [Southwest Austin] knows with certainty how unreliable South MoPac is, and what this project will do is open it up to reliability,” he said.

The Mobility Authority is hosting an open house Nov. 10 for the public to view the six proposed concepts of the MoPac South project environmental study.

MoPac South environmental study open house

Nov. 10
3-7 p.m.
Palmer Events Center,
900 Barton Springs Road
Level 2, meeting rooms 1-5

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Joe Basco is the reporter for the Southwest Austin area. He joined the Community Impact team in May 2015. Joe was born and raised in Jacksonville, Fla., but lived in Midland for two years and reported for the Midland Reporter-Telegram before arriving in Austin.
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