The High Cost And Backwards Logic Of MoPac Toll Lanes

By Bill Oakey – July 13, 2014

Everyone knows that MoPac and I-35 are the two busiest roadways in Central Texas.  So, with interest rates having been at historic lows over the last several years, why hasn’t the Legislature and TxDOT given priority to both roadways and borrowed the money to add more lanes?

I’m talking about more lanes for everybody, not just the fortunate ones who can afford to pay tolls every day in both directions, going to and from their jobs.  There are a number of ironies to this situation.  For one thing, the McMansions and high-density luxury housing binge in the Austin urban core has priced many of the once-considered middle class people out into the less expensive suburbs.  Even without tolls, the commuting costs for these residents is high.  So, adding express lanes for the privileged will not help them at all.

Here’s another strange irony.  The pay-if-you-can toll lanes will feature a variable pricing structure that actually discourages the use of the toll lanes to relieve congestion.  During the morning and afternoon rush periods, the more people who enter the toll lanes, the higher the toll meter will jump.  The theory behind that is to keep the paid lanes moving at a consistently reliable speed.  But, as the lanes gradually fill, the price of entry starts to rise.  What that will do is keep people away and ensure that the free lanes remain congested.

There is only one way to even out the flow of traffic on all of the lanes during peak periods.  This could happen if people drove onto the toll lanes in large numbers, just hoping that their trip will be faster because they paid a high toll.  Well, guess what?  The maximum toll will kick in when the toll lanes are just as congested as the free lanes.  People will figure that out over time and not see enough benefit to paying the high tolls.  That will push them back onto the free lanes, only to create annoying congestion on those.  If MoPac doesn’t have enough traffic now to fill up two more lanes during rush hour, it surely will before long.

In my opinion, the whole yo-yo system was designed by a bunch of yo-yos!  I shudder to think how much it will cost to build and maintain the complex electronic apparatus to constantly assess and juggle the toll rates.  The contract for that must have been a juicy plum for a bunch of political cronies.

Here Comes My Favorite Question – How Do They Do It In Other Cities?

A somewhat similar toll lane system was tried in Seattle with very poor results.  What happened is explained in a June 2013 article called, “If Drivers Won’t Pay to Bypass Congestion, Why Should Taxpayers?”  Here is an excerpt:

“The 10 miles of priced lanes — the only “HOT” lanes in the Pacific Northwest — were converted from HOV lanes in 2008 and cost $18 million to implement. Five years later, Seattle-based sustainability think tank Sightline Institute reports that usage and toll revenue on the lanes are far lower than anticipated. Last year, the lanes collected about one-third the revenue of the most conservative predictions from the Washington Department of Transportation.”

How Much Will the MoPac Tolls Cost You?

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority has a website that will answer all of your questions.  The title is “About the MoPac ‘Improvement’ Project.”  There is a long column of information boxes.  The details on the cost of the tolls is in the 45th box.  Here is the key sentence:

“Preliminary studies suggest toll rates will normally be less than $4.00, but they could go much higher at times of peak demand.”

My Comment:  The wording implies that $4.00 is a very modest rate.  The “much higher” amount for peak demand times is conveniently not disclosed.  Even at $8.00 per daily round trip, you would be looking at 21 working days per month for a total “ka-ching” cash register ring-up of $168.00.  But what the heck, it’s only money!

Since You’re Going to Love the MoPac Toll Lanes, How About Some More?

Yes, before the paint gets applied or even has a chance to dry on the decorated sound walls for the MoPac “improvement” project, plans are underway for the sequel.  Are you ready for paid toll lanes on 183 between MoPac and SH 45?  See the news article here.  If you live in Anderson Mill and the modest rate of $8.00 per day applies on that stretch of road, you could also take the MoPac express lanes and zip into downtown Austin.  The total would only run you $336.00 per month.  What a bargain!  Gosh, if only you could make that move out to Cedar Park.  Then you could enjoy the privilege of paying a third set of daily tolls with 183A!

Final Question – Who Gets to Use the Express Lanes?

In other cities where there are special tolled lanes, they are usually established as “HOT” lanes. That stands for “high occupancy toll lanes.”  These are a hybrid of “HOV” or high occupancy vehicle lanes, which we have never had here in Austin.  The cities that use HOT lanes grant free access to cars with more than one occupant, to encourage car pooling and relieve congestion. But Austin couldn’t be that efficient.  Every car using an express lane will pay the same toll, regardless of the number of passengers.  The MoPac “Improvement” website encourages carpooling passengers to “split the cost of the tolls, to make them more affordable.”

Update:  CTRMA Website Shows Links to 11 Cities Across the Nation That Offer Free Access For Carpooling!

If you click this link and review the case studies for all of the cities listed, you will find that 11 out of 12 clearly state that they offer free access to express lanes for carpooling.  Most of the cities also offer free access for private vanpools and motorcycles.  All of our State and local transportation officials owe us an explanation as to why the MoPac express lanes will not offer this access. They need to tell us whether they are really interested in mobility and relieving congestion, or whether this toll lane thing is just a big money grab!   You can contact the CTRMA officials here.  If you contact them, you might also ask for some detailed transparency on the cost range of the tolls at different time periods.  Most of the other cities offer this information online.  Why should Austin have to settle for second-rate service and mediocre treatment of taxpayers?

Here Is One More Final Question…

This one is also from the MoPac “Improvement” website:

Question: “How high can the toll rate go?”

Answer: “There is no limit on the toll rate.”

Click here to listen to the classic Jackie Wilson song, “Higher and Higher.”

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6 thoughts on “The High Cost And Backwards Logic Of MoPac Toll Lanes

  1. Tex Cartwright

    Those toll lanes were really only proposed to pay for the sound walls for central West Austin. There is no other real benefit for the toll lanes on MoPac.

    Reply
  2. Tex Cartwright

    BTW, for those who have lived in Austin long enough, you should know the better option to MoPac for rush hour, under construction, or tolled, will be the old tried-and-true take the old Balcones Dr. (Lee Leffingwell’s street) from 2222 to 35th to Exposition to Lake Austin Blvd., it’s faster than MoPac, free, and you’ll be in on a secret of the Highland Park, Tarrytown crowd, they still get their toll paid for sound walls on top, though, but then they have to live next to the railroad tracks too, lol!

    Reply
  3. SToddJones

    Did toll roads start in Dallas or Houston? I remember hearing that they were owned by some company from Spain…but have no clarification. I just remember Rick Perry pushing for them and me not liking the whole concept.

    Reply
    1. Patrick

      They started in Houston (or Harris County) The country had to put it in the ballet and they made sure that the feeders would remain free and allow anyone to travel as needed. Rick Perry likely violated Texas law with the Austin toll ways and it is not wise for any company to invest in them. We are getting a double whammy here. We already pay for state roads via tax now we are also paying via tolls. Rick Perry did sell some state roads to a private company. I would really like to see how Texas law works with that one. Something tells me when Texas turns blue and it will. Those companies are going to be looking for Perry and they won’t be very happy with him.

      Reply

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