Guest Editorial On MoPac “Improvements”

Oakey: MoPac project will hurt affordability and worsen congestion

Posted: 6:00 p.m. Sunday, April 19, 2015

By Bill Oakey – Special to the American-Statesman

Last summer I blogged about my concerns about building so-called express lanes on the northern portion of MoPac (Loop 1). Now we are confronted with a new plan for more toll lanes on the southern part of MoPac. The new section will include an upper deck and flyovers that will dump thousands of cars onto Cesar Chavez Street next to Austin High School. Instead of improving traffic, this will cause much worse congestion.

No one doubts that MoPac needs improvements. But when you look at the big picture, the current plan is problematic on several levels. The expansion of Texas 45 will ultimately create a link between Interstate 35 and MoPac. It will saddle MoPac with untold numbers of cars from new developments being built over the Edwards Aquifer. Imagine the bottlenecks from all those cars when they exit MoPac. Central city roads have capacity limits, and when you exceed those limits you risk serious traffic gridlock. Adding lanes to MoPac is a welcome idea, but the design should take local neighborhoods into consideration.

On the affordability front, I still can’t swallow the notion that MoPac can never be improved without toll lanes. Why can’t state dollars be used for the sections of MoPac that run through the main part of Austin? I haven’t heard anyone in the Legislature make that suggestion, even though more funding for highways seems to be in the works.

Somebody should step in and nix the cornball scheme for “Lexus Lanes” on North MoPac. The luxury housing binge in the 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.

These pay-if-you-can toll lanes will feature a variable pricing structure that actually drives down the number of people who can afford the tolls. During the morning and afternoon rush periods, the toll meter will jump as more cars enter the lanes. The gimmick here is to keep the traffic flowing faster, with fewer drivers willing to pay. But this could easily backfire if too many frustrated drivers clog the toll lanes. These drivers could find themselves paying a lot of extra money, while not moving any faster than the folks in the free lanes. That will push them back onto the free lanes, only to create intolerable congestion on those.

My final concern is the one factor that makes our express lane project unique. Ours is the only one among those listed on CTRMA’s website that does not offer free access to car poolers. That flies in the face of Austin’s traditional approach toward air quality and traffic mitigation.

I shudder to think how much it will cost to build and maintain the complex electronic apparatus to constantly assess and juggle the variable toll rates.

Our local officials should have fought much harder to keep MoPac free. Maybe they will reconsider if the “Lexus Lane” concept receives a lukewarm reception.

Oakey is the author of the blog


7 thoughts on “Guest Editorial On MoPac “Improvements”

  1. Vince May

    Toll roads create a new empire of debt for Austin. CTRMA is $1.1 billion in debt for their 2 existing toll roads. (TxDOT owes $2.4 billion on their Austin projects.) CTRMA will take on $352 million more debt for S MoPac. They plan to add a minimum of $1.7 billion more for other projects. With 1 exception, every politician in Austin / Travis County wants more debt, not less.

    About the free use of CTRMA toll lanes by HOV cars: That won’t happen. CTRMA has promised to allow “registered van pools” to use the lanes but they are not accepting registrants and won’t say when they intend to do so. It doesn’t matter. It is nearly impossible to get 10 people to ride a van to work on a regular basis.

  2. Ben

    Hi Bill,
    I follow your blog regularly, and generally support your advocacy for a more affordable Austin. There is no doubt that the toll lanes will add to the cost of commuting for those that choose to use them and at certain times of day these lanes will likely be unaffordable to many drivers. I also think that TxDOT has not funded transportation improvements in this region adequately. There are concerns for sure with the amount of debt used to finance construction on other roads. I think SH 130 was a huge waste of money because it is not a route that improves traffic congestion along the major commuting corridors (MoPac, I-35, 71/290, and 183).

    However, I disagree with your assessment of how the toll lanes on MoPac are an inferior approach to reducing traffic congestion relative to just building 2 more “free” lanes.
    In your blog post from last summer, you cite the case study of an unsuccessful managed toll lane project in Seattle. I appreciate the concern raised by this project, but in the world of transportation, every system is unique. I came across another case study of the managed toll lanes on I-95 in Miami and the result has been overwhelmingly positive for commuters.

    Here are a couple of the highlights: Average driving speeds in the toll lanes have increased from 20 mph to 64 mph in the toll lanes and from 15 to 51 mph in the free lanes during peak hours, despite an increase in vehicle trips of 23%. The increase in bus ridership has been 22% due to added routes and the benefit of having a congestion-free route. After the first year, surveys showed 71% customer satisfaction with the project and the majority of responders supportive of extending the managed toll lanes further. The project has been so successful that the maximum toll of $7 is becoming too low to keep the toll lanes from staying at 100% congestion free during peak hours. Imagine if instead of toll lanes, additional “free” lanes were added. No doubt those new lanes would already be congested and Miami drivers would be no better off. With managed lanes, they have the ability to keep those lanes congestion-free for those drivers who are willing to pay, and as a side-effect have encourage more transit use, which is a more sustainable way to increase capacity on a highway. Needless to say, these lanes are not “affordable” to many drivers, but I think the overall public benefit in the form of more throughput and less congestion is worth it.

    No matter how bad traffic gets, people will still move here as long as the economy is good. Therefore, we have to prepare for more people and more traffic. I hope we can both agree that there is no way to build our way out of congestion. In the short term traffic might improve on major highways, but soon they will become congested again as more people move to the region, and eventually there will be no more right-of-way to expand lanes. The only long-term, sustainable solution to congestion is to limit the number of vehicle trips at any given time. This will take a multi-faceted approach, including incentivizing transit or carpool use, staggering work hours, and using managed toll lanes to keep certain lanes congestion-free at all times. When you make something “free”, you encourage more use, and hence more traffic. In a growing city like Austin, there is simply not enough capacity to meet the demand for driving that exists today or in the future when the region grows to over 4 million people. We have to be smarter about adding capacity to the transportation system by allowing for the greatest movement of people not cars.

    To be sure, we must still remain critical of CTRMA on the implementation of these lanes and of the ongoing operating costs to manage them. The MoPac South improvement project will still need plenty of public input on the design to mitigate environmental and safety concerns. We should fight for more TxDOT dollars to come to the region. But the managed lane concept is the right approach for our most congested roadways, where there is limited road capacity coupled with an insatiable demand for driving. The issue of affordability in terms of housing costs and taxes is still an important one, but in the case of traffic, there will be a high price to improvement no matter what. Either we can spend lots of money on additional lanes with no way to change driver behavior, or we can spend lots of money with a way to incentive other forms of transportation and improve traffic flow for everyone.

    1. Bill Oakey Post author

      Thanks for the thoughtfully prepared comment. The problems with congestion on MoPac and I-35 have reached crisis proportions. I do not believe we are in a position to address this level of congestion by offering “Lexus lanes.” With such a high demand for those two highways, we need every inch of available capacity to be utilized. I disagree that the issue can be described in terms of “driver behavior.” During the morning and evening rush periods, drivers are not using MoPac and I-35 for shopping or sightseeing. They are using those roads because that’s the only way they can get to and from work. Offering an expensive perk for the well-to-do in the form of “Lexus lanes” is a slap in the face to local citizens who have invested in the community and paid taxes here for most of their lives.

      As for the need to seek solutions to accommodate our “future population of 4 million people,” I just have to respond with a huge belly laugh! There is no way in hell that Austin will continue to be an attractive hot spot for yuppies or any other demographic if it became that crowded! Our inner city road network was not laid out in contemplation of that big a population. You could put five decks on every highway, with 10 lanes on each deck. But that would not create any more room on the much smaller local roads. There is no way to improve roads like Enfield, Lake Austin Boulevard, Koening Lane, and the myriad of other local boulevards to handle a population of 4 million people. The bottom line is simple. Big business types and developers have hyped Austin far beyond its capacity to handle the cost or geographic plausibility for sufficient infrastructure. Within five years or less, there is almost certain to be a major crash for the current Austin boom. Those who are in denial today are the very people who will say when it happens that they “never saw it coming.” We can either deny the reality and continue with growth-at-any-cost policies, or we can wake up and stand up and be counted, before it’s too late.

  3. Ben

    The problem with addressing the level congestion on MoPac or I-35 with free lanes is that it will only provide short-term relief. You have to change driver behavior and the use of alternative transportation to address the issue long-term (easier said than done for sure, but no less valid). No doubt the majority of commuters will continue to drive alone during rush hour by necessity, but increasing carpool and transit use along MoPac in dedicated, congestion-free lanes by even a small percentage would have a larger effect on congestion than simply adding more single-occupancy vehicles. If you can guarantee congestion-free routes along major highways, coupled with robust transit service and better land use planning to encourage more transit/pedestrian commuting, you have a much more effective way to reduce congestion than simply building more lanes. Your point about local roads is a good one. If you just add lanes to the highways, it only delays the congestion until later on in the transportation network, in this case to the local feeder roads. Increasing the percentage of commuters who carpool or use transit in the dedicated lanes can help delay this effect. I also don’t think Austin is at the “crisis” level of other major cities like NYC, SF, Boston, or LA traffic, though the many years of inaction on the transportation issue has caught up to us in a serious way.

    I don’t disagree with you that Austin is over-hyped and will not be able to handle the amount of people coming here. Eventually the population within the city limits will reach a critical mass, maybe a million or so, but I don’t doubt that the population of the region will continue to grow to something like 4 million in the next 30 years (what Seattle MSA is now). The Austin MSA is only the 32nd largest in the country, so I see no reason why Hays/Williamson/Burnet counties can’t absorb more population. Not all of these people will be commuting daily to Austin or visiting local destinations. Much like other big Texas cities, people will have to live/work/play in their respective parts of town. Armageddon-like traffic will only further encourage this type of lifestyle. The direction for policy makers at this point should be to stop incentivizing businesses to locate downtown and instead encourage employment centers dispersed throughout the region. They should also focus more on reliable public transportation in the outer parts of the city for those that simply can’t afford to live centrally but still need a way to commute.

  4. Kenna Emerson

    I am relieved to see you state that there is no way to enlarge some of the main local roads like Koenig and Enfield. It’s heartening to hear this as we long-time residents see the tragedy unfolding exponentially. It’s been heartbreaking to see in one year the traffic lined up on Barton Springs Rd. the entire distance from MoPac to Lamar during rush hour and on weekends. Is it going to take the complete drying up of Travis AND Buchanan for the Chamber and city officials and developers to let up on the incentives and hype that fuel the pace of the steady massive population influx which continues to overburden tax payers?
    Even a crash is only temporary – maybe nothing short of a fairly complete redesign of the economy is going level the playing field so that people have jurisdiction over their locale.

    1. Bill Oakey Post author

      Thanks for your thoughts. People just don’t seem to get it. It is no longer an issue of pro-growth vs. no-growth. Now it has become a battle for survival. The City will soon find itself so choked with congestion and so uncomfortably overcrowded at restaurants and events that the bloom will come off the rose. When that happens, many of the young hipsters who don’t own property will simply move on to the next “it” town with the best wild parties and festivals. Unfortunately, those of us who were here before the hype started will be stuck with the debt and the huge cost to pick up the pieces after the crash.


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