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CTRMA hopes variable tolls change driving habits

Tuesday, April 21, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

An official with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority hopes that variable tolls on proposed express lanes on MoPac Boulevard will serve as an incentive to commuters to change their driving habits.

CTRMA’s Rick L’Amie says Capital Metro buses and registered van pools will drive the express lanes for free — a sight, he said, that CTRMA is counting on to inspire lone drivers to rethink mass transit.

L’Amie told the Austin Monitor on Monday that he imagines a scenario of a driver who’s sitting in a regular lane as a bus zips by in the express and thinks, “‘Hey, I can get downtown more quickly,’” L’Amie said. “Then an express bus becomes a more viable option for people who haven’t considered the bus because they think it takes too long.”

At a meeting of the Land, Facilities and Program Committee last week, members questioned the effect CTRMA officials believe variable tolls might have on the behavior of Austin commuters.

Speaking specifically about the proposed express lanes over Lady Bird Lake, CTRMA engineer Sean Beal said last week that drivers opting to take these express lanes will be charged on a sliding scale relative to congestion. The heavier the traffic on the express lanes, the higher the charge.

Committee member Lynn Osgood, however, warned that more roads mean more drivers, and there’s no psychology around that fact. “You build it and they will come,” she said.

Beal agreed. “We’re aware that we can’t build our way out of congestion,” he conceded.

But CTRMA’s toll structure may make drivers think hard about taking the express lane. For starters, the price won’t be capped. Beal said the agency reached that decision after meeting with officials from other cities that have implemented the pricing system.

“They said, ‘No matter what you do, you may face political pressure, but please don’t set the cap, because once you get to that level you don’t have any management tool that can ensure that reliable travel time,’” Beal said at last week’s meeting.

L’Amie said Monday that the organization’s board will determine final pricing. He said the general starting price for the express lane will hover close to 25 cents for a nonpeak trip.

Beal further explained last week that the aim of the system is to keep the express lanes moving at 50 mph, and a changeable toll price allows the agency to manage that. The reasoning is that if the price is low, more drivers can afford to take the express lane. More drivers mean heavier congestion and rising toll prices. Presumably, as the price rises, fewer drivers will opt to pay, traffic will break up and speeds will level back out to that 50 mph goal.

But committee member Hill Abell said this helps only a select number of drivers.

“So the express lanes are going to be moving, but the general purpose lanes are going to be completely gridlocked,” Abell said. “So the net benefit for the population of Austin is zero, unless you’re lucky enough to pay $14 to use the express lane.”

CTRMA representatives at last week’s meeting said that congestion is the reality of Austin, and may only be stemmed by forcing a behavior change and compelling some drivers to seriously consider public transportation.

L’Amie said the main intention of the express lanes is to ensure a reliable trip time for those who can pay — whatever the price may be.

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