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Tolls coming to MoPac, project gets clearance

Category: News

Link to article here.

Difficult birth is right. Ben Wear nails it here when he expects there to be a rise in 'civic blood pressure' when people figure out they're being charged a toll to use EXISTING right of way. The toll authority is using TAX money to build the toll lanes, but will charge you again to drive on them -- a DOUBLE TAX! The whole thing a pure taxation scheme, and our legislators have given these unelected toll boards the ability to enact taxation without representation. They fully expect the public blowback, but since they get to blame it on unelected boards insulated from the wrath of taxpayers, they happily sell us out -- EVERY time.

However, Ben Wear is wrong about Austinites 'accepting' the toll roads. Ask anyone if they enjoy paying hundreds of extra dollars in transportation taxes just to get to work -- it's like a pay cut for heaven's sake! Though some have succumbed because they have little choice, others are voting with their pocketbooks. Only one of the Austin toll projects is in the black, the rest are being bailed out by every Texan. So EVERYONE is paying for these toll roads, but only the select few can afford to drive on them. The red ink is certainly not a ringing endorsement of toll roads. They're failing, and we all know by now how the public feels about bailouts...

Wear: Toll lanes coming soon to North Mopac, likely elsewhere

Austin American Statesman
September 30, 2012
By Ben Wear

Get ready for “express toll lanes.”

Those of you who have been around Central Texas for a decade or so will remember the protracted and painful transition to toll roads. The prevailing view here — understandable given our transportation history — was that God and nature intended for highways to be free.

The change provoked lawsuits, several rancorous public meetings, wall-to-wall media coverage and an unsuccessful attempt to recall an Austin mayor and two of his City Council colleagues.

Then the roads began opening in 2006, and people just basically calmed down and accepted the things. Several hundred thousand Central Texans signed up for electronic toll tags, people drive the roads when they can afford to and need to save some time, and life has gone on.

But that transition, rough as it was, was eased by geography.

All five of the tollways now open are on the suburban perimeter, and for many of us, that means we drive them only occasionally or not at all. And the construction period, at least until work began on the U.S. 290 East tollway a couple of years ago, was no big deal. Those initial tollways were “greenfield” roads being built either entirely or mostly on new right of way.

That will not be the case with what officials have anxiously dubbed the “MoPac Improvement Project.”

Get ready for another difficult birth, the building of what the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is calling express lanes. For clarity and full disclosure, I’ll be calling them express toll lanes in the paper.

And the MoPac project will probably have a few siblings within another decade.

The project, for those unfamiliar with it, will add a lane to each side of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) from just north of Lady Bird Lake to Parmer Lane, an 11-mile stretch. But the new lanes will have tolls — the existing three lanes on each side will remain free to drive — and those tolls will change by the minute or hour, based on the speed of traffic.

If the speed slows in the express toll lanes because of too many cars, the toll rate will increase to discourage some people from using it and thus maintain a speed of 50 mph or more. It might cost you the minimum 50 cents to drive those 11 miles at 1 a.m. At 8:45 a.m. on a Wednesday, it might cost you $5. Or more.

There won’t be a toll rate cap, the mobility authority says.

This is called “dynamic tolling,” and it is not just new to Austin, but new to Texas as well. And still pretty rare in general. That alone would be enough to raise civic blood pressure, especially given that sections of the new lanes will sit on pre-existing right of way, on the left-hand lane on each side, between the river and Northland Drive.

Expect to hear a lot about “double taxation” and accusations that the mobility authority, the local toll agency, is charging you to drive on real estate that was formerly free to drive.

But the construction period before the lanes open, which is likely to happen in late 2015 or early 2016, probably will be a special kind of hell. What MoPac drivers — about 200,000 people a day — have to look forward to is 28 months of orange barrels, yellow heavy equipment and concrete jersey barriers, starting sometime around the middle of next year. Ouch.

The mobility authority is talking with three possible design and construction consortiums right now and in January probably will pick one of them for the job. The authority says it is doing everything it can to minimize the heartburn of construction and says that the existing three lanes of traffic on each side will remain open almost all the time during construction, with most of the work occurring at night.

But you just know that MoPac, already a trial several hours a day during the morning and evening commute, is going to be a bear to drive during construction. Which means that the parallel routes — Exposition Boulevard, Lamar Boulevard, Hartford Road, Jefferson Street, Burnet Road and Balcones Drive among them — will also get worse as people look for relief.

This might be a good time to consider South Austin real estate.

But consider this: Express lanes, and the construction that precedes them, almost certainly will be coming to South MoPac as well. The mobility authority is about to begin a federally required environmental study for adding express toll lanes in the center median of MoPac from West Cesar Chavez Street — the south end of this first project — to Slaughter Lane.

Various transportation plans around here also show added toll lanes on both U.S. 183 and Parmer Lane, from MoPac to Texas 45 North, and even on Interstate 35, from Round Rock to Slaughter.

Yes, I-35. Just try to imagine what that construction project will be like.

Our children, a few decades from now, might not remember a time when Austin didn’t have express toll lanes all over the place. The rest of us, I suspect, will never forget the coming years that it will take to create them.