Tuesday, November 20, 2007

"We're going to be the toll road capitol of the world."

TxDOT looks to managed lanes on MoPac

November 20, 2007

KVUE News (Austin, TX)
Copyright 2007

Next to Interstate 35, MoPac is the busiest road in Central Texas -- and often one of the most congested. But how to you improve traffic flow on a road that's bordered by a rail line on one side and neighborhoods on the other?

The Texas Department of Transportation is hoping that managed lanes may literally pave the way to life in the fast lane on MoPac.

"Ultimately if we're going to solve the problem, we've got to do it ourselves, " said Brandon Janes, vice chair of the Austin chamber of commerce and the head of its Take On Traffic initiative. "The alternative is the region chokes on it's traffic and that's unacceptable."

If choking on traffic is unacceptable or if simple indigestion from the congestion is enough to make you ask whether there's a better way -- you'll be happy to know the folks at TxDOT and the Austin chamber's Take On Traffic Initiative say they have a plan. It calls for one additional lane to be added in each direction along MoPac. Drivers would be charged to use those lanes. It's called congestion pricing or managed lanes.

"Managed lanes provide us the ability to not only allow carpools and bus transit, but also to allow drivers to get on the same roadway, but at a price," said TxDOT spokesman Marcus Cooper.

That price would fluctuate depending on the time of day or traffic on the road -- thus the name "congestion pricing." It's similar to a high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane. The only difference -- you don't have to have a car full of passengers to drive on it -- single occupancy vehicles can drive on it too -- for a fee. Besides the amount of traffic on the road, the price you pay is also based on each mile you drive. A sign at each access point will alert drivers to the cost.

Sound like a good idea to you?

"I don't like the idea," said Fabian Arocha, driver.

"Some of us are willing to pay to get there quicker," said Lane Wilson, driver.

"We pay enough taxes towards this city that we shouldn't have to pay to get on a road to get to another part of town," said Sandra Reyes, driver. "Up until 7 o'clock workdays, it's really bad. So, they need something."

"It would relieve a lot of congestion, and I wouldn't mind paying the toll," said Gina Dunn, driver.

TxDOT and city leaders traveled to San Diego recently to get a first hand view of the congestion pricing and managed lanes used on Interstate 15. They came away convinced it's the most effective way to alleviate much of the congestion on MoPac.

"There is no adequate alternative to adding a couple of lanes. Because you can't go down, you've got the railroad railway in the middle, you've got neighborhoods on either side. This is about as much as you can do on MoPac," Janes said.

"'Managed lanes' is just another word for toll lanes," said Sal Costello, the founder of AustinTollParty.com. He's not convinced managed lanes are the solution.

"What they're doing is they're using our tax dollars and using our right of way. They need to add the lanes but not have us pay for them and pay for them again," Costello said.

The cost is at the heart of every road construction project these days. TxDOT claims that because of limited federal funding and the fact the gas tax hasn't been raised in Texas since 1991, it simply does not have the funds to meet the traffic demands of Central Texas. And if our current traffic woes are to be corrected now, tolls are the only way to cover those construction costs. It also points out that the bulk of the $100 million MoPac managed lanes project isn't for road construction or re-striping -- it's to cover the cost of concrete sound barriers.

"The neighborhoods have insisted they entitled to sound barriers," Janes said.

Costello says TxDOT should add an additional lane in each direction along MoPac but make them free lanes.

"We can move a lot more traffic by having these as free lanes" Costello said.

But Janes countered, "If you add an additional so called free lane or gas tax lane, it will become as jammed as the others."

Phase one of the managed lanes project would run from Parmer Lane to Cesar Chavez, with limited entrance and exit points. Phase two would extend the MoPac managed lanes from State Highway 45 north to Slaughter Lane. TxDOT is still gathering environmental data and public input. If approved, construction could begin in the spring of 2009.

"We're going to be the toll road capitol of the world," Costello said

"Normal Joes take it if you’re in a hurry and you have to be someplace. It's like buying a $4 cup of coffee. It's convenient and people do it," Janes said.

© 2007 KVUE: www.kvue.com

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE