About a thousand people a day move to Texas. And if you’re driving on the MoPac expressway at rush hour, it might feel like every one of them is commuting with you.
That's how Sara Robertson feels most days. She's been commuting on MoPac for about eight years. “And every year it gets longer and longer,” Robertson says.
She commutes every day from north Austin to the UT campus. I rode with her as she drove the route she uses to get home – and asked her what goes through her head each day as she approaches what can be a six-lane parking lot.
“Well, the first thing I’m going think about is seeing how far traffic is backed up,” she says. “Because if it’s backed up to where I’m getting on, then I know it’s going to be a slow-go home. But if it’s moving like it is now, then I have some luck that it might not be so bad.”
So will the construction project starting this fall help alleviate that traffic? Possibly. It’s only adding one lane in each direction. And that lane will be tolled based on how many cars are trying to use it. The more cars in the toll lane, the higher the price.
Mario Espinoza is the Deputy Executive Director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which is in charge of building the new lanes. The goal, Espinoza says, is that no matter how slowly the un-tolled lanes are moving, the new “express lanes” will move no slower than 45 miles an hour.
"At least you know that in an emergency, when you have to get to childcare, when you’re trying to get to your kids soccer game or when you’re trying to make a doctor’s appointment, that there is a lane that you can take on MoPac that will get you there at a reliable time," Espinoza says.
But will that fix MoPac? Espinoza says that’s the wrong question. Austin’s rapid population growth and MoPac’s geographic limitations mean there is no "fix" for this heavily used road. Maybe it’s just that people have to redefine what it means to improve transportation in Austin.
One proposed solution is make public transit more robust: packed busses – and a proposed urban rail system –mean less congestion without adding extra roads.
“Each day we can decide, ‘Do I drive today? Do I take the bus today? Do I walk today?’ That is the type of comprehensive system I think that will work for Central Texas," Espinoza says.
But even if you take thousands of cars off the road with public transit – they might just be replaced with thousands of new cars from new Austinites.
“Because our population projections are so aggressive and we see people wanting to come to our region … even if we could maintain congestion at the current level, some would see that as a win given the amount of population we see coming to our region," Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization director Maureen McCoy says.
So maybe the solution is to keep people from moving to Austin.
“People could stop moving to Austin. But I moved here 14 years ago. So who am I to tell people not to move here?" Robertson says.
But with multiple transportation additions on the way, like express lanes, Capital Metro’s MetroRapid service, and expansion of Highway 183 in East Austin, at least people will eventually have options when they inevitably move here. Until then, it’s back to MoPac for Robertson – at least until construction starts this fall.
“Oh, I already have an alternate way,” she says. “I’m afraid to even mention it because I don’t want anybody else to know my secret. But some mornings if I don’t leave my house by a certain time, I need go my backup way."