Monday, February 26, 2007

CTRMA banks on the projections of Vollmer Associates

183-A tollway has some competition

Road will offer fast alternative in clogged northwest corridor, but other options may win out.

February 26, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

Cedar Park commuters on U.S. 183 no doubt have the Gantlet of Red Lights memorized by now: RM 1431, Cedar Park Drive, Park Street, Brushy Creek Road, Cypress Creek Road, Lakeline Boulevard.

Then, blessed relief, the bridge over RM 620 and miles of open expressway south to Central Austin.

Officials with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority are counting on that infernal list of stoplights along U.S. 183 to drive motorists to their 183-A tollway when it opens in Austin's northwestern reaches on Saturday. Up to 60,000 cars a day slog along the formerly scenic country highway that in recent years has become a homely, stop-and-go tour of suburban commerce.

Taking the six-lane 183-A tollway may trim several minutes off the 4.5-mile trip between RM 1431 and RM 620, which will be supplanted soon by the Texas 45 North tollway. And the connecting 7.1 miles of free road the mobility authority added to the north (with periodic traffic lights interrupting the drive) will feed people from Leander and points north to the tollway. But saving time and anxiety will come at a price: $1.80 for people with electronic toll tags, or about 40 cents a mile.

That tab, along with several competing, free roads and other factors, could make the Austin area's fourth toll road the one most in danger of falling short of expectations. But mobility authority officials sound confident that projections, done three years ago by a traffic and revenue consultant, are not out of line

"If we miss the target, we have money set aside to help out," said Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the mobility authority. "But I don't think we're going to need that because our estimates were fairly conservative."

Heiligenstein said that Vollmer Associates first settled on the traffic it thought the road would generate and then trimmed 40 percent to 50 percent from that. The lower projections show 17,700 cars a day on 183-A by the end of this year, almost 24,000 daily by the end of 2008 and nearly 53,000 a day by the end of the road's fifth full year.

The predicted traffic would have the toll road comfortably in the black by the third year.

Katherine Paterson, who lives on New Hope Road north of RM 1431, will probably be among those 183-A drivers from time to time.

"Out here, 183 is bumper-to-bumper, and it doesn't matter what time you use it," she said. "I won't use (183-A) too often. But, yes, I will use it. I think it's great."

Will enough people think it's great for the agency to pay back the almost $235 million it borrowed to build 183-A? The agency believes that after a couple of lean years, during which it will need money already granted by the state to stay out of the red, the road will be profitable.

The agency estimates that by 2011 the road will be generating a $5 million profit, growing to $8 million annual profit after a decade of operations. Over four decades, according to the estimate, the road would spin off more than $1 billion, although the bulk of that occurs in the final 20 years. That excess money, by state law, can be used only for other Central Texas transportation projects.

The road, however, faces a number of challenges, some of them imposed by the agency itself:

•Ways not to pay. Drivers in the increasingly developed northwest corridor have several free alternatives to 183-A.

There is U.S. 183, which could lose a few of the cars that have been stacking up at those lights. So 183-A could create a sort of accordion effect there, drawing people away and then sending them back if there are reports that its stodgy but free older brother has become less of a nightmare.

For people living east of the tollway, Parmer Lane, spacious and lightly populated with stoplights, will remain an attractive option. But southbound drivers, when they reach Texas 45 North on Parmer, will face an uninviting choice of paying to use that tollway and its Loop 1 partner (at a cost of about $1.35 with a toll tag), staying on Parmer for a few more lights to reach MoPac Boulevard or turning west to go south on the expressway portion of U.S. 183. The 183-A tollway will be faster for many people than those alternatives.

People living west of U.S. 183 will still have Lakeline Boulevard, which cuts through the Crystal Creek and Buttercup Creek neighborhoods and allows people to avoid those U.S. 183 stoplights.

•A different kind of hybrid. The 183-A tollway will be a strange mixture, with the southernmost 1 1/2 miles open only to people with electronic toll tags and the northernmost three miles or so open to anyone. At least some people without toll tags inevitably will blunder onto that all-electronic section, get a violation notice in the mail, get mad and disseminate bad PR for the road to their friends.

Heiligenstein, who said there wasn't room to install cash booths in that section of road, thinks that commuters in that area will quickly figure out that situation. The agency has no plans to add cash booths to the southern section.

•Why bother? For many people living south of RM 1431, the trip on the tollway may be so short as to render the time savings inconsequential. Or, provided they have a toll tag, they may take only a brief section south of Brushy Creek Road costing 45 cents.

•No way east. At least initially, 183-A drivers will not be able to seamlessly head east on Texas 45 North to get to Round Rock. The flyover bridges at the interchange, a state Transportation Department project, aren't done yet, and the agency hasn't said when they will be. Until then, eastbound travelers will have to exit and go through several traffic lights.

•Commuter rail? Capital Metro is opening a passenger line to Austin, originating in Leander, that will directly compete with the tollway. But the line won't open until late 2008, well after 183-A has taken root, and initially during rush hour the rail line will be able to carry just 1,000 or so people, many of whom may already be riding express buses from the area.

To prime the pump, the mobility authority will be following the strategy used by the state when it opened its three Austin-area tollways last fall: Give the product away for a while.

The 183-A tollway opens late Saturday and will be free to all drivers in March and April. In May, cash customers (on the parts where they're allowed) will begin paying full price, while the road will still be free to toll tag users.

Then in June, people with toll tags will pay half the cash price. In July they'll begin to pay their permanent rate, 90 percent of the cash price.

The agency is counting on familiarity with the road breeding contentment and aversion to returning to those U.S. 183 red lights. We'll know by later this year if that turns out to be the case.; 445-3698

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