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MoPac South public comment results pour in

Thursday, December 3, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Comments from the MoPac South public input period and open house are being tallied, and based on their projected volume, the proposal appears to have galvanized the community. The City Council Mobility Committee discussed the project and preliminary results on Monday with its sponsor – the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority – and public speakers.

Justin Word, director of project management for the mobility authority, said that 778 comments had been counted and transcribed as of Nov. 23 and that he has heard the total will likely exceed 1,000. “Toward the very end, we received an overwhelming number of additional comments that we are going through the process of transcribing,” he said.

The public comment period for MoPac South began on Oct. 21, when the mobility authority launched its online “virtual open house,” and ended on Nov. 20, 10 days after an in-person open house at the Palmer Events Center.

The MoPac South project is the mobility authority’s proposal to add tolled lanes with prices that vary based on congestion levels – referred to as express lanes – to MoPac Expressway between Cesar Chavez Street and Slaughter Lane. Certain transit users, including Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses and registered vanpools, would have free access to the lanes.

The mobility authority has presented six configurations – along with a “no-build” option – with variations that consider factors such as whether it would add one or two express lanes in each direction, how and where drivers would connect to and from those lanes and whether it would add raised lanes or additional right-of-way to the highway over Lady Bird Lake and Zilker Park.

Critics have raised concerns about the impact that the additional traffic would have on Cesar Chavez and particularly Austin High School, the environmental and aesthetic effects of adding right-of-way or raised lanes – which some have referred to as “double-decking” the highway – and the affordability of the express lanes for average Austinites.

Although he did not go into the substance of the comments, Word said that, of those transcribed so far, 500 concern the concept of constructing two express lanes in each direction, 450 the idea of connecting the express lanes directly to downtown, 270 the potential environmental impacts of the overall project and 73 the implications of tolling.

Melissa Schenker, the mother of an Austin High student, said she is concerned that the proposals would add major congestion near the school during peak hours, making it difficult for students and parents to get in and out of the parking lot. She also pointed out that school buses would not be eligible to use the express lanes.

Council Member Sheri Gallo said she would like to look into the possibility of opening the express lanes to school buses.

Heyden Walker, a planner with architectural and urban design firm Black and Vernooy, said there had been discussions about including park-and-rides in the MoPac South expansions, but she hasn’t seen any plans materialize.

Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development, said that his organization has advocated for including transit in the project since the outset. He said that Cap Metro has had discussions with the mobility authority about it and has made some progress, but nothing has been “firmed up.”

Word said that the mobility authority is looking at two sites on South MoPac but that they are of a “preliminary nature.”

Council Member Ann Kitchen, who chairs the the Mobility Committee, said she wants to make sure that the city and stakeholders “don’t end up with one project and then maybe, at some point, later, the park-and-ride.”

Bill Bunch, who heads local advocacy groups Save Our Springs Alliance and Keep MoPac Local, is a vocal critic of the proposals and one of the organizers of a recent forum encouraging residents to comment in opposition to the project.

“The overwhelming message from the folks that we facilitated, and people who just signed along to our message as well, was that we choose none of the above out of the six tolled options and then the do-nothing option,” Bunch told the committee. “We feel like it’s really time to step back and put some nontolled options on the table for further study that could actually help reduce congestion for everybody.”

One of the alternatives that Bunch suggested is to add free high-occupancy-vehicle, or HOV, lanes to MoPac by restriping the existing infrastructure.

Kitchen appeared interested in the idea, which is not included in any of the proposals. “Intuitively, that seems to support more people traveling in a car, for example,” she said. “It seems to intuitively support the transit priority.”

Word responded that HOV lanes were considered early in the process but were “screened out” because they weren’t projected to meet certain goals, such as those related to increasing capacity.

“Many communities,” Word said, have converted previously existing HOV lanes to tolled and express lanes in recent years. “What they found was that when you have HOV with two-plus (passengers), it is overwhelmed, … and when you have three-plus, it is underutilized.”

Kitchen pushed further. “The basic concept behind an HOV lane is that you’re encouraging more than one person in a car,” she said. “Other than the buses using the express lane, it doesn’t do anything to encourage less cars, if I’m understanding correctly. It’s just a cost.”

“I believe that’s correct,” responded Word. “And that goes to the heart and the purpose and need that we have on the project, was that congestion management element.”

Bunch said in an interview with the Austin Monitor that he had not seen the research to which Word was referring but that he would like to. He brought up a study from the early 2000s on HOV lanes in Dallas that found that the lanes increased the “total person volume” in the corridors in which they were implemented.

“What (Word) said, though, was, if you only require two (passengers), it fills up. Well, you know, is that a bad thing? You’re doubling the capacity of that lane versus just having one person per car,” said Bunch.

As far as the three-passenger scenario, Bunch said he’d like to know how underutilized the lanes were. “If it’s not maxed out but it’s still moving a lot more people than would be moved otherwise, it would be beneficial,” he argued.

Now that the public comment period is over, the mobility authority will continue to tally its comments, conduct additional analysis and propose a “preferred alternative” to the public. The earliest that is likely to happen, Word said, is next spring.

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