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In Austin, Toll Lanes May Give Bus Service a Boost

Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
View from one of Capital Metro's 1M northbound busses at the intersection of 4th and Congress in Austin.

In 2015, an 11-mile stretch of Austin’s MoPac Boulevard will expand to eight lanes from six. The two new lanes will be tolled, giving drivers the chance to pay a premium to avoid the road’s frequent congestion. 

While the toll lanes will help ease traffic on the free lanes, neither the Texas Department of Transportation nor any of the local entities involved in the $200 million project are predicting it will transform MoPac into a free-flowing thoroughfare. With robust population growth projected for the region, MoPac traffic is expected to continue periodically slowing to a crawl for decades. When it does, local officials are optimistic that frustrated commuters will notice that it is not only personal vehicles zipping past them on the toll lanes. 

“What people are going to do is look over and watch the buses going by at 50 miles per hour,” said John Langmore, vice chairman of Austin's Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority board, at a recent transportation symposium hosted by The Texas Tribune. “Who wouldn’t start to contemplate riding a bus, and nice ones, as opposed to sitting in your automobile?”

The Capital Metro vehicles will be able to use the toll lanes free of charge. Most others will pay a toll that will be constantly adjusted to ensure that traffic is moving at least 50 mph, a concept known as dynamic tolling that is also a feature of toll projects under construction elsewhere in Texas. Officials predict MoPac toll rates will normally be less than $4 but have said tolls will go as high as needed to manage congestion. 

“Today, our bus routes on MoPac are stuck in traffic like everybody else,” said Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning. “What this can do is give us both faster travel times but, equally importantly, improved reliability. That’s really the exciting thing about it.”

Capital Metro planners are currently studying how to adjust bus routes to take better advantage of the new toll lanes and draw new riders.

“Across the country, it’s been shown that if you can deliver people to where they want to go faster than they can drive themselves, you start to see many more people starting to use transit,” Hemingson said.

Over the last decade, as state and federal infrastructure funding has lagged, several Texas cities have moved forward with toll lane projects on existing highways. The projects allow communities to add capacity to local road systems years sooner than they might be able to otherwise by leveraging the expected toll revenue to help fund the construction. 

Despite the tolling element, toll lane projects are also often easier to sell to the public than building a new road, because the lanes typically require the acquisition of far less additional land, said Tim Lomax, research engineer with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. A public transit component can also draw support. 

“There are a lot of corridors where the public is just not going to let you build a freeway,” Lomax said. “In some cases, a public transit option or operating the system better is closer to what the public is going to accept.” 

In North Texas, where several toll lane projects with dynamic tolling are in development, bus patrons in Fort Worth and Dallas are likely to see markedly improved travel times on some routes as buses take advantage of the congestion-free toll lanes, according to officials with both cities’ bus systems.

At a ceremony last month to celebrate the start of construction on the MoPac project, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell touted toll lanes as central to reducing the city’s reliance on cars as building new commuter rail lines.

“The free predictable flow of buses coming into central Austin, that is a big component of improving mass transit in our area,” Leffingwell said.

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