Local Community Goals Drive $203M MoPac Improvement Project
The $203 million MoPac Improvement Project underway in Austin, Texas, is setting a new standard for transportation infrastructure taking its place as an attractive, integral part of the fabric of the community, not simply a ribbon of steel and concrete carrying traffic through it.
The project will increase capacity on one of the area's most heavily traveled arteries with the addition of two, variably priced tolled express lanes, the first in Central Texas. It will also provide connectivity to the community, which has long been bisected by the very highway and railroad that were built to serve it, through project betterments that include bike and pedestrian bridges and paths, decorative sound barrier walls, underground crossings and the creation of new green spaces.
"The original downtown cross-town expressway was built about 45 years ago as an old-style highway that could move people but offered no sense of community or place," said Mike Heiligenstein, Executive Director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (the Mobility Authority). "We are driven by local, community goals, and we are very close to the people we serve, our constituents. The MoPac improvements reflect our mission to implement innovative, multi-modal transportation solutions that reduce congestion and create transportation choices that enhance quality of life and economic vitality."
MoPac serves as Austin's primary alternative to Interstate 35 and carries more than 180,000 cars and trucks each day on the existing corridor of six general-purpose lanes. By 2035, MoPac's average daily traffic is predicted to exceed 294,000 vehicles.
Originally constructed in the 1970s, the Mopac Expressway, or MoPac (officially Loop 1 Freeway), is so named because the original section of the highway was built along the right-of-way of the Missouri Pacific Railroad (now owned by Union Pacific).
Within the 11-mile improvement project area from Parmer Lane to Cesar Chavez Street, railroad tracks run in the highway median at the southern end, and along the east side of the highway at the northern end.
Consequently, to make room for the new express lanes, the roadway is being widened in the median on the northern end and to the outside on the southern end.
The project is being financed through a unique partnership with the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). CAMPO and TxDOT have approved grants totaling $199.5 million to fund the project. As part of the partnership arrangement, the Mobility Authority has agreed to set up a Regional Infrastructure Fund, and over the next 25 years, will deposit $230 million (from toll revenues) into the fund. CAMPO can then allocate money from the fund to other transportation projects in the region.
Express Lanes Provide Dynamic Solution
After decades of debate on how to improve MoPac, the Mobility Authority and TxDOT partnered in 2010 to conduct a federal environmental assessment of the corridor. Over two years the project team held dozens of community meetings and analyzed a wide range of issues, including roadway noise, historical properties and bicycle and pedestrian needs.
"We turned the model upside down on this one and focused on public outreach to allow community involvement to direct the hard planning," Heiligenstein said. (For more on the project outreach efforts, see page 10.)
Given the community's determination to not acquire additional land for the project, take any homes or businesses, or build any elevated structures, it was determined that express lanes were the best option to improve mobility in the corridor and meet the need and purpose of the project.
The new express lanes will give transit buses, vanpools, emergency vehicles and individual
drivers the ability to bypass congestion on the 11-mile stretch of MoPac between Parmer Lane and Cesar Chavez Street.
"Express lanes are managed in a way that tolls will change based on the amount of traffic in the lanes, with a goal of maintaining a 45 mph speed limit," said Heather Reavey, PE, Program Director for HNTB Corporation, which is serving as a general engineering consultant for the Mobility Authority. "They will be variably priced, meaning the toll will have a minimum rate of 25 cents per segment (or 50 cents for the entire length), and will increase the heavier the traffic gets in those lanes."
Preliminary studies suggest toll rates will normally be less than $4.00, but they could go much higher at times of peak demand.
Tolls will be collected electronically using electronic toll tags. Drivers who don't have a tag account will still be able to use the lanes, as the Mobility Authority will take a picture of their license plate and send them a bill in the mail.
This is the first time variable pricing tolled lanes are being implemented in Austin. The Mobility Authority is in the process of ramping up its public outreach efforts, so the public will better understand how they work before the northern portion of the project is opened at the end of the year.
Community Informs, Embraces Enhancements
Intense public outreach efforts by the planning/construction team yielded tremendous input from the community, and several key components desired by Austinites have been successfully incorporated into the project.
In addition to roadway improvements, the project includes: 7 miles ($20 million) of federally required sound walls to be constructed along the corridor between Cesar Chavez Street and Steck Avenue to reduce traffic noise; bike and pedestrian improvements ($5 million); and aesthetic enhancements such as painting of bridges and sound walls, architectural features, landscaping and trees.
"The sound walls were technically promised with original construction of this roadway 40 years ago in the early and late 70s, but they never got built," Heiligenstein said. "The community has been wanting them for a long time, and they are already being well-received."
Sound walls are being built along the property line where feasible. In limited instances, they will be constructed on bridge railings or along the side of the highway. Wall heights will vary between 8 and 20 feet.
In addition to providing sound protection, the walls have a "softening" aesthetic, Heiligenstein added, and serve to unify the entire corridor.
"These walls will blend in with people living within a few hundred feet of the corridor," Heiligenstein said. "Even roadways can become something special and welcome and not become a barrier to movement and aesthetics."
Austin has a reputation for being hip, fun and fit, and the community wanted more bike and pedestrian components to be included in the MoPac Improvement Project.
Nearly $5 million in bicycle and pedestrian improvements are being constructed at cross streets and on portions of the frontage roads, including expanded sidewalks, crosswalk signals, dedicated, bike/pedestrian shared use paths connecting into the larger Walnut Creek trail system, and a new, 525-foot-steel pedestrian and bike bridge that crosses over the train tracks between the Balcones Woods neighborhood and the Domain shopping district.
In addition to enhancing recreational opportunities in the area, the improvements increase safety and connectivity, said Steve Pustelnyk, Director of Community Relations for the MoPac Improvement Project.
"The reality is that people have been crossing the railroad tracks illegally," he said. "This is an opportunity to fix what is currently a barrier to safe pedestrian traffic."
Technical Innovation Helps Preserve Green Space
CH2M of Englewood, Colorado competed against six other firms to win the $137 million design-build contract. The contractor received the Notice to Proceed in April 2013 and began construction December 2013. The Mobility Authority has since made some change orders for betterments, increasing CH2M's contract to $140 million. The first phase of the project is scheduled to open December 27, 2015.
During the proposal stage of the project, CH2M proposed some technical changes to provide an alternate to some of the bridge type structures above ground at the toll lane access interchanges, said Craig Martell, CH2M's Project Executive.
"We thought it would be more environmentally sensitive and better for the community to preserve the green area at the Cesar Chavez interchange," he said. "So we proposed and the Mobility Authority accepted constructing two under crossings - one for the northbound and one for the southbound - at the Cesar Chavez toll interchange."
That added the challenge of boring through a limestone formation at that location to install storm water drainage.
"Limestone exists where the under crossings are as well, but we can open excavate in those areas," Martell explained. "We are using boring machines to bore through the limestone so that large drainage pipes can be installed."
Overall, the project poses all of the challenges that normally come with a road project, namely working amid high-speed, round-the-clock traffic, within a tight footprint, and relocating a tremendous amount of utilities. The tolling means installing signage, Intelligent Transportation Systems and the actual toll facilities.
There are also other projects within the project, Martell added.
The three spans of the 525-foot steel bike and pedestrian bridge were set in three separate nights in April, near live traffic lanes and over the Union Pacific Railroad.
"Each span is comprised of multiple smaller segments that are spliced together," Martell said. "The center span of the bridge was 170,000 pounds, and we used two cranes - Grove models GMK 630 and GMK 6300 - to set it."
A tremendous amount of preparation went into preparing critical lift plans because the reach proximity to power lines and vertical clearances were tight.
"It took months and months of planning on how the bridge would be manufactured, transported, assembled and hoisted into place," Martell said. "We had to keep the public informed, communicate constantly with the local police department, and coordinate closely with the UPRR."
Much of the work on this project has been below the public's radar up to this point - foundations for noise barriers, utility relocation, excavation for under crossings. Now that the public is beginning to see aboveground progress such as erection of the bike and pedestrian bridge and installation of sound walls, people are getting more engaged and excited, Martell said.
By August, CH2M will be performing numerous activities that will be visible to the public, including paving, bridge expansions, more sound wall erection, bridge signs going up, construction of shared-use paths adjacent to the corridor, and landscaping.
The Mobility Authority originally anticipated the project opening this fall, but the contractor was plagued by "rain of biblical proportions" in May, Martell said. "At nearby Camp Mabry, we had over 6 inches in one day."
Additionally, maintaining a sufficient workforce for such a large project has been a challenge, especially considering Texas' robust construction market.
"We brought in Lane Construction as an integrated subcontractor in March to bring in additional craft workers and supervision," Martell said. "We also recently added Yates Construction as a partner (in May) and told them not to hire locally as they would be competing with CH2M and Lane for that workforce. Even with oil prices being reduced and folks coming out of the oil fields, there just aren't enough folks out there."
In July, CH2M had 150 crafts people on the project. Lane had around 60 and Yates, 40. Including other subcontractors, about 300 people were working on the project. Martell said the project was gearing up to its peak activity and would eventually employ about 400 people.