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Thursday, September 7, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

As MoPac work winds down, another CTRMA project faces potential peril

The end of the road for the MoPac Improvement Project appears to finally be coming into sight just as potential problems loom for another Austin toll road project.

On Wednesday morning, Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority Director of Community Relations Steve Pustelnyk told his board of directors that two new managed toll lanes on MoPac Expressway could be completely open by November, bringing the painfully delayed project online 26 months behind schedule.

“At this point, the contractor is expected to make the lanes available to us for northbound by the end of this month and we’re still looking to make that happen,” Pustelnyk reported in his monthly briefing on the project’s status. “And then as we get into October, we’ll be hoping the southbound lanes open as well, by probably around early November.”

After a series of ultimately incorrect projections, CTRMA staff have for months withheld any guesses about a specific completion time, a fact that underscored Pustelnyk’s confidence in this latest prediction. He also previewed for the directors elements of the marketing campaign that will be used to educate drivers about the variable-priced toll lanes.

The ads emphasized that the lanes are not envisioned as backup express lanes to be used in extraordinary situations, such as a child passenger needing to use the restroom. When questioned about the toll rates that appeared in one video, Pustelnyk said, “Our research has shown that for a full-length trip during rush hour, based on the traffic demand essentially, or the volumes out there, that the toll will have to be in the $2 range for a full-length trip.”

By comparison, a driver who opts to take the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s new No. 980 bus from the Howard Lane Park and Ride to downtown Austin will pay $3.75 for the single trip.

While the news about an imminent end to the MoPac saga is likely welcome across the region, more foreboding was the talk of a proposal that could set the 183 South Project on the path to postponement. According to Justin Word, CTRMA’s director of engineering, a city of Austin request would chew up a large chunk of the contingency built into the project’s timeline.

Word explained that the city had asked the agency to replace a smaller wastewater pipeline across U.S. Highway 183 near East 51st Street with a new 72-inch pipe surrounded by an 84-inch steel casing. The $1.01 million price tag of that job would be covered entirely by the city.

Word recommended approval based on a number of factors, including the convenience of installing the pipeline while crews are simultaneously reconstructing the highway to add three new toll lanes in each direction.

He added, “It benefits the region overall. Frankly, it sets us up to be smart about how we move forward with East Austin growth.”

However, the projected time to complete the work – 4.7 months – will burn up nearly two-thirds of 183 South’s 7.5 months of contingency time. When it broke ground last year, the agency estimated the new toll lanes would be finished by 2020.

“It doesn’t leave a lot for anything else for the rest of the project,” Board Member David Singleton said of the city’s request.

Those concerns were seconded by Board Member David Armbrust, who asked about a second, separate city request that Word had mentioned was working its way through City Hall. Word reassured the board that he had told the city the agency would not be so flexible again when it comes to spending its contingency time.

“I share your concerns,” Word said. “Always. Anytime we’re eating up contingency, it needs to be justified. What makes me a little more comfortable with this one is that we’re coming up out of the ground time and the ground is where risks lie. And when we get up out of the ground, things are more known and we start having control over a lot more elements. So I’m going to knock on wood.”

With the board members assuaged, Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein joked, “I just want to know if we can toll the effluent that will be in that pipe.”

The board then unanimously voted to approve the city’s request.

Photo via the MoPac Improvement Project and CTRMA.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

CTRMA: The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. A governmental agency created, according to its web site, in 2002 to "improve the transportation system in Williamson and Travis counties." The site also notes that the agency's "mission is to implement innovative, multi-modal transportation solutions that reduce congestion and create transportation choices that enhance quality of life and economic vitality." In addition to other responsibilities, the agency oversees a set of toll roads in the region.

MoPac: Texas State Highway Loop 1 is also known as "MoPac" after the Missouri Pacific Railroad it was built on. The scenic highway runs from the beginning of the State Highway 45 to US 183.

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