AUSTIN Revived expansion project will add managed toll lanes to road
MoPac changes on the way
Rush hour on MoPac Boulevard will soon become quieter — and perhaps in six years, less congested.
The Texas Department of Transportation is spending $3.6 million this summer to resurface the stretch from RM 2222 to Lady Bird Lake with a special asphalt that dampens road noise and is less slick in rainy conditions. And workers will add a northbound lane on a troublesome bridge just north of the river by restriping part of the shoulder.
A long-term plan will add a fourth, “managed” lane on each side of MoPac (Loop 1) from Parmer Lane in North Austin to the river.
An environmental assessment, which is under way, and engineering work for the managed lanes will be complete in about two years, of- ficials said Wednesday. The additional lanes, which would be tolled at rates based on the congestion level of the highway, might be open by 2016. The tolls would be higher during peak commuting periods, and when traffic is light, they would be minimal or might disappear entirely.
After TxDOT spent about $7 million and 21⁄
2 years on an environmental study and engineering plans for the project, funding dried up, and
TxDOT halted work. It has now allocated $2 million to complete the preliminary work.
MoPac would not be widened. Instead, in the tight section between RM 2222 and the lake — where the Union Pacific railroad sits in the median — officials envision that the managed lanes would be squeezed in by narrowing lanes slightly in some spots and using most of the existing shoulders. The new lanes would be separated from the free lanes by a row of flexible pylons and have a handful of entrances and exits.
Officials say the estimated $200 million to $220 million needed for the construction is, if not exactly in the bank waiting, highly likely to be available. Local transportation officials have already set aside $70 million of $543 million promised to TxDOT’s Austin district for new construction over the next 10 years.
The rest of the money would be borrowed and paid back from tolls, which, because MoPac has so much traffic, would be sufficient to pay back debt for more than 60 percent of the construction tab, officials said. In addition, officials say, the toll revenue would provide money for sound walls alongside MoPac, a measure long promised by TxDOT to neighborhood groups south of RM 2222.
The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which operates the 183-A tollway in Cedar Park and is building toll lanes on U.S. 290 in East Austin, would build and operate the project. The authority has done preliminary traffic and revenue analysis, which showed the healthy toll revenue from the added lanes.
Although the actual design will be determined during the environmental study, officials said Wednesday that the toll lanes will likely include some sort of direct connection — flyovers or perhaps ground-level ramps — to Cesar Chavez Street. The existing lanes would have the same entrance and exit ramps.
Construction would take three to four years.
The project seemed to be similarly teed up about four years ago and then fell apart when TxDOT finances fell on hard times. But state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who hosted a noisy news conference Wednesday alongside MoPac at 35th Street, said the political and financial dominoes are properly lined up this time.
“The vision has coalesced and the people have coalesced to make this happen,” Watson said. Those people include Deirdre Delisi, chairwoman of the Texas Transportation Commission, who attended the event.
The racket over Watson’s shoulders as cars and trucks zoomed by, he said, was actually part of the point. The “porous friction course” asphalt that TxDOT will begin laying down in a few days on MoPac’s main lanes absorbs consid- erable noise, although officials couldn’t quantify the anticipated noise reduction.
The short-term project, Delisi said, “will make our life quieter, which is good news for those who live near MoPac.” That includes Delisi, whose Tarrytown home is just a couple of blocks west of MoPac.
Terry McCoy, TxDOT’s area engineer for North Austin, said the asphalt project will take place from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. on Sunday through Thursday nights, and thus should not affect peak morning or afternoon commuting traffic. McCoy said the resurfacing project should be complete by mid-September.
One of the planned changes to MoPac, seen here looking south, is the addition of a lane to this bridge, just north of the river, that has only two northbound lanes; traffic slows even more as cars merge in from downtown.