MoPac roadwork nears finish line

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 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.

NWA-2016-05-1-1The 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 in those express lanes, 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.

The Mobility Authority has an agreement with Capital Metro to allow its Express buses and registered vanpools to ride the MoPac express lanes for free. Drivers who carpool may also split the cost of the toll. Capital Metro has four Express bus routes that use MoPac to transport commuters to The University of Texas, the Capitol Complex and downtown Austin.

In January the agency plans to expand the hours and number of trips on those routes as well as add two new Express bus routes and a new Park & Ride facility near the north end of the project off Howard Lane, said Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development.

NWA-2016-05-1-2Variable 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 rely on traffic cameras and staff members to ensure the algorithm is working and make adjustments as needed, he said.

“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, 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.

Initially the Mobility Authority will rely on staff members to monitor traffic flow and ensure the algorithm is responding correctly, Reilly said.

“Since we have no historical [express lane] tolls yet [for the region] we had to do a bunch of traffic modeling to get what we believe is about an average of what the tolls will be for this first section,” he said.

NWA-2016-05-1-3Value of time

On other similar variable tolled projects in the U.S., only about 10 percent of users would be considered regulars, Reilly said. How often people decide to use the express lanes will depend on their value of time, he 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 or concert or to pick up a 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.

Even when the toll is low, Pustelnyk said he expects some people to use the express lanes.

“There will be some people who love to have their own lane,” he said.

MoPac South

Heading southbound, the express lane will end after crossing Lady Bird Lake. However, it could connect to future express lanes if they are built on MoPac South.

The Mobility Authority sought public input in 2015 on six toll configurations for the MoPac South Environmental Study corridor between Cesar Chavez Street and Slaughter Lane.

The options include one or two express lanes in each direction. However, on Feb. 25, a coalition of neighborhood, environmental and civic groups filed a lawsuit in federal district court to prevent the MoPac South project from moving forward.

The Mobility Authority filed a response to that lawsuit April 26, said Dee Anne Heath, the  agency’s director of external affairs.

Behind the scenes, the project team is working to update traffic projections based on data from the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s 2040 long-range plan. That analysis will be incorporated into any technical reports on the project, Heath said.

“The next public meeting and details about that public meeting have been delayed indefinitely until we have some type of resolution,” she said.

By Amy Denney

Managing Editor, Austin metro

Amy has worked for Community Impact Newspaper since September 2010, serving as reporter and senior editor for the Northwest Austin edition as well as covering transportation in the Austin metro. She is now managing editor for the 10 publications in the Central Texas area from Georgetown to New Braunfels. She enjoys spending time with her husband, son and two cats.