Monday, January 15, 2007

MoPac will take mo' money from commuters

Looking at 'managed' tolls on new MoPac lanes

January 15, 2007

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

Amid all the roiling about whether several Austin highways should be expanded as tollways, plans to add toll lanes to MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) have been churning away quietly below the radar.

That's about to change.

In mid-March, the Texas Department of Transportation will release a detailed proposal to add "managed lanes" to MoPac between Town Lake and Parmer Lane. And if all goes smoothly — a huge "if" in the world of public policy and highway construction — MoPac north of the river could have eight lanes by the end of 2010. That's one more on each side.

But you 'd have to pay to use those two new lanes.

Which brings us back to managed lanes, an approach that would be a Central Texas first if it happens on MoPac. But not necessarily a last.

Austin City Council Member Brewster McCracken has been pushing managed lanes as an alternative to creating full-fledged toll roads on U.S. 183, Texas 71 and other highways in a proposed second wave of tollways dubbed Phase 2.

The MoPac project is considered Phase 3, though it might occur before Phase 2.

So what's a managed lane?

That can vary, both in design and toll scheme, from place to place. But it's a lane that might be free for some vehicles such as buses or carpools and charge tolls for other vehicles. In some cases, there is "congestion pricing" in which the toll rate rises and falls to assure that the managed lane remains free-flowing. If traffic congests, the price would go up to temporarily cull users.

John Kelly, the Transportation Department's lead consultant on the MoPac project, provided general details of the $102 million plan.

•No added right of way: Central Austin neighborhoods made it clear years ago that MoPac shouldn't expand outward. And the Union Pacific railroad, at least for now, is loathe to give up some of its 60 feet of right of way. But, Kelly says, he and his team, on paper, have contrived to wedge a fourth lane into the skinniest section of MoPac from Town Lake to RM 2222. Which means . . .

•Narrower lanes: MoPac lanes, 12 feet wide in most places, would go to 11 feet. However, the two added lanes would be 12 feet wide, with a 4-foot buffer from the three free lanes, allowing people to drive around stalled or wrecked cars in the managed lane. Aside from scattered 11-foot sections on MoPac, officials say there are 11-foot lanes across Central Texas.

•No concrete barriers: The managed lanes would be separated from existing lanes with stripes and flexible pylons. There would be entry and exits points at each end and two places in between.

•Who pays? That will be subject to debate. But Kelly recommends that no tolls be charged only for buses and van pools.

Want to know more about managed lanes?

The Transportation Department has scheduled a forum on them at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Thompson Conference Center on the University of Texas campus.

Getting There appears Mondays. For questions, tips or story ideas, contact Getting There at 445-3698 or

© 2006 Austin American-Statesman: www.