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Work on MoPac to last into 2017

Thursday, October 27, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is tooting its horn over the partial opening of a new toll lane on MoPac Expressway while also remaining cagey about the expected completion date of the entire project.

At the agency’s monthly board meeting on Wednesday, staff gave a glowing report on the operations of the fresh stretch of the toll lane that runs north from RM 2222 to Parmer Lane. That section opened to the public two weekends ago.

“I really don’t think it could have gone better,” Tim Reilly, director of operations, told the board.

In its first full week of operation, the lane’s use grew from 1,942 users on Monday to a peak of 3,149 users on Thursday, with variable tolls peaking at around 50 cents. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, in 2015 MoPac saw a daily average of 171,070 vehicles going in both directions just north of Far West Boulevard, approximately the midpoint of the new express lane.

Reilly told the board that the new lane is already reducing travel times for all drivers along its stretch. In the weeks prior to its opening, the average trip from RM 2222 to Parmer took 13 minutes. In the week after the opening, drivers in the express lane made the same trip in about six minutes, while drivers in the general purpose lanes made it in 7.5 minutes.

Reilly did not present data reflecting travel times before the express lane construction began in late 2013 and speed limits were reduced to accommodate lane closures and other work. An agency spokeswoman said staff is working to provide that data soon.

The CTRMA’s contractor, CH2M Hill, was originally expected to complete the entire project by fall 2015. That date has been pushed back several times, with the official blame falling variously on weather delays, engineering issues and labor shortages.

In July, the board granted Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein the authority to begin assessing damages against CH2M. However, the contractual cap of $20 million has already been reached. The project is being funded with $199.5 million in grants from TxDOT and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.

At that summer board meeting, staff told the board that the entire project was 70 percent complete. On Wednesday, Steve Pustelnyk, CTRMA’s director of community relations, delivered the news that that number now stands at 77 percent. However, the 5-mile section between Enfield Road and RM 2222 remains only 51 percent complete.

Much of the incomplete work involves new sound walls along the corridor, road widening and the incomplete tunnels that will connect the express lanes to downtown Austin.

“Construction is moving forward,” Pustelnyk promised. “It has picked up tremendously in the last couple of weeks.”

Despite that, he warned of significant construction-related snarls ahead and went so far as to dub one upcoming weekend the “MoPacalypse.” Pustelnyk explained that the northbound roadway will be reduced to one lane between Lady Bird Lake and Enfield Road.

Pustelnyk would not give a specific estimate of when to expect that work but offered: “It will probably be sometime in late November, or possibly early December, depending on how construction goes.”

He also demurred from providing an estimated date for the completion of the entire project. Instead, he said staff expects it to be done by late spring 2017.

The project’s tardiness notwithstanding, at least one board member still had a question about the project’s basic design. Charles Heimsath, a Travis County appointee, asked Reilly if drivers heading southbound on Parmer Lane would be able to access the express lane from the on-ramp to MoPac there.

Reilly replied, “If you’re on Parmer Lane itself and you use the ramp to go onto MoPac, by the time you get to MoPac on the bottom of that ramp, you’re already past the entrance into the express lane.”

Heimsath’s question about the fundamental design of the project – information the agency makes available to the public on its website – echoes one that his fellow Board Member David Armbrust asked in May about access from RM 2222. Heimsath was absent from that meeting.

On Wednesday, Board Member David Singleton aired his wariness of offering the public any estimated completion date, be it specific or general. Referencing the least complete of the project’s sections, Singleton asked staff, “I think it’s important to manage expectations, and if we’ve been at it and we’re 51 percent complete, is that realistic that we’re going to hit late spring?”

Justin Word, director of engineering, noted that late spring means as late as June 22 and told Singleton, “Right now, everything looks very positive. There’s a tremendous amount of working going on, but we don’t want to raise false expectations about the project at this point.”

Photo courtesy of the MoPac Improvement Project website.

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