Commuters on LBJ Freeway will have a new option for the evening rush hour with the opening of managed toll lanes today.
The new segment of sunken TEXpress lanes, which feature toll prices that change as congestion does, stretches from Luna to Preston roads and opened shortly before noon — after years of construction.
A ceremony marked the completion of the $3.2 billion project, with several city and state officials in attendance.
And then the lanes opened to traffic for the first time, with a handful of vintage cars, fire trucks, and police cars and motorcycles leading the way.
J. Bruce Bugg Jr., a state transportation commissioner, said the newly expanded freeway would serve a quarter-million vehicles every day.
“Today is a great example of how congestion is being relieved with the opening of the LBJ Express,” he said.
Original story (posted Friday, Sept. 5):
Avoiding LBJ Freeway and its infamous traffic congestion is pretty hard for Curt Riffel, who lives in Richardson and works near the highway’s interchange with Dallas North Tollway. So, like scores of North Texas drivers, he’s spent the past few years slogging through the added bottlenecks from a $3.2 billion renovation project.
But as the massive redo of one of the region’s most loathed corridors entered its final stages this summer, Riffel noticed that congestion has gotten noticeably better in the rebuilt main highway lanes.
“The traffic, to me, moves much more fluidly,” he said.
Just don’t expect Riffel to take advantage of the most dramatic addition to the highway: a canyon of managed toll lanes beneath existing free main lanes that will open to traffic Thursday.
“Not unless I make a mistake and accidentally get on it,” Riffel said.
But Frank Rumbauskas is sold on the toll lanes. He already uses the portion that opened in 2013 to get from work near TI Boulevard and LBJ to his home near Midway Road and Forest Lane.
“It’s like a godsend for me,” he said. “I get home in under 10 minutes vs. what would have taken 30 to 40 minutes on bad days prior to that.”
The new segment that runs from Luna to Preston roads won’t be open for morning rush hour Thursday, but is slated to debut before evening commutes. It connects two existing segments of what’s been branded TEXpress lanes, which feature toll prices that change as congestion does. It will also officially end the long-awaited reconfiguration of the major east-west thoroughfare through North Dallas.
LBJ was originally built to handle about 180,000 cars a day. Current demand is about 270,000. The rebuilt highway with new TEXpress lanes will be able to handle about 360,000 cars a day. Demand is expected to reach that point in 15 years.
Because the new stretch of segregated toll lanes essentially creates a turnpike within a free highway, drivers have more decisions about how they traverse the corridor. They’ll also have to get acclimated to new terminology and deciding whether to pay tolls for potentially smoother drives.
“You’ve got new signage you’ve never had before,” said Robert Hinkle, corporate affairs director for contractor LBJ Infrastructure Group.
Get used to the new system. North Texas is expected to be home to the largest network of managed toll lanes in the country. There will be about 124 centerline miles of TEXpress lanes by 2019.
People on some LBJ frontage roads and interchange bridges will have to quickly decide between getting in the free main lanes or new toll lanes. And there are a handful of places where people already in the free lanes can decide to get into the toll lanes.
Signs directing people to the free lanes are marked by the traditional Interstate 635 emblem. Signs for the toll lanes feature that emblem inside a box that says “Express” and “Toll.”
The signs also show the price for an upcoming segment of the toll lanes. The prices rise and fall depending on traffic in the TEXpress lanes. The more congested the lanes, the higher the toll. Rates are raised so that fewer people use those lanes and congestion in them thins out. The goal is to keep traffic in the toll lanes moving 50 mph or faster.
“Each one is a decision point you’ll have to make,” said Tony Hartzel, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation.
Sensors throughout the corridor read traffic conditions and feed it into an algorithm that sets the toll rates. The prices shown on the signs before drivers enter a particular segment is the toll they pay, even if the rate goes up while they are in the lanes.
There are also traffic sensors on the free main lanes, so officials are already expecting people to wrongly assume those are toll gantries charging them for what should be a free trip.
“It’s all for the managed lanes operations, to see where the traffic is and where it’s going,” Hartzel said.
TEXpress lanes are intended to be used for long distances, not quick jaunts past just a few exits. That’s meant to increase the value of paying the tolls and to keep the lanes from getting packed with interweaving traffic.
“It’s improved reliability and safety because you don’t have as many entrances and exits,” said Heather DeLapp, a spokesman for the project.
While there are direct interchanges from Interstate 35E and nearby Loop 12 to the new TEXpress lanes, drivers won’t be able to directly connect to and from the managed toll lanes and Dallas North Tollway. TEXpress drivers will have to exit the toll lanes and use existing interchanges between the tollway and free LBJ lanes to do that.
The High Five interchange connecting the free main lanes on LBJ and Central Expressway hasn’t changed physically. But the only drivers in LBJ TEXpress lanes that will be able to directly connect with Central are carpoolers.
That’s because LBJ’s new toll lanes replaced carpool lanes, which had a reversible interchange connection to Central’s carpool lanes. So morning carpoolers from southbound Central can connect to the westbound LBJ toll lanes. In the evening, carpoolers in eastbound LBJ toll lanes can connect to northbound Central’s carpool lanes.
All other LBJ toll drivers will have to exit to the free main lanes and use the High Five exit to the right to connect to Central.
Not for everyone
Riffel doesn’t see much need to use any managed toll lanes between Central and Dallas North Tollway.
“The cost benefits are not there in my opinion,” he said.
But DeLapp said that people like him could still see a benefit because each driver in the toll lanes is one less driver elsewhere.
“It’s traffic no longer in the general purpose lanes,” she said.
And Rumbauskas thinks there will be a lot more people joining him in the TEXpress lanes once the final stretch opens and connects the other two segments.
“I expect a lot more once it’s fully open,” he said.
To read the full story, click here.