Tag Archives: Austin Express Lanes

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 AustinAffordability.com.

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