The Struggles of The Fastest Highway in America
SH 130, with its 85 MPH speed limit, may finally be working—but it took the long way to get there.
Since opening to the public in 2012, the 41-mile stretch of Texas State Highway 130 from Austin to Seguin seemingly served its original purpose: helping drivers avoid nightmarish Interstate 35 congestion. In addition to its dizzying speed limit—the fastest in the U.S. at 85 mph—the public-private partnership tollway always seems to be empty. That’s good news for the few drivers who bail on the stop-and-go of the interstate, but—until very recently—it’s been a problem for the troubled highway.
Ground broke on SH 130 in 2003, and three years later, the first stretch of the highway opened to the public. Initially, the route only served suburban commuters in Georgetown and Round Rock, but by 2012, the highway stretched all the way to San Antonio. It’s a useful way to navigate between the two cities—especially during one of Austin’s many special events, when it can take two-and-a-half hours to travel the 79 miles between each city’s downtown. At 85 mph, however, the open stretch of SH 130 can usually be traversed in an hour and forty-five minutes.
That’s real utility, but the bottom line for SH 130—and the investors who paid for the southern section—is if it’s worth it. That’s not just an abstract question. The tolls for traveling on SH 130 are a real issue that has kept the long-haul truckers it was expected to attract from using it. A 2015 study from Texas A&M found that only 14 percent of the traffic on the road came from long-distance drivers looking to avoid I-35, and of that, only 1 percent of the traffic were the eighteen-wheelers it was intended for. Trucks looking to pay by mail while using SH 130 would pay as much as $32.07 each way for the trip, and the cost wasn’t always entirely clear to drivers. A Reddit thread from 2014 detailed the experience of a trucker who missed the less-than-prominent signage, then became outraged over the $40 he paid for taking the toll road on a trip to Dallas from McAllen and back.
So SH 130 wasn’t just an empty highway—it was a broke one. In 2013, the SH 130 Concession Company, the private company (jointly owned at the time by Spanish private infrastructure company Cintra and San Antonio’s Zachry American Infrastructure) that operated the southern section of the toll road saw its credit rating downgraded from B1 to Caa3—the “junk” status offered by Moody’s—indicating the strong likelihood that the company would end up defaulting on its $1.1 billion in debt. That same year, state Representative Paul Workman proposed buying out the company’s 50-year contract to operate the road at a cost of $3 billion, half of which would be paid by the federal government. That would have resolved the toll problem, but it potentially could have created another: Texas taxpayers were sold SH 130 on the promise that they wouldn’t be the ones paying for it. Ultimately, the bill went nowhere.
The SH 130 Concession Company filed for bankruptcy in March 2016. At the same time, toll prices along the road were slashed, and truckers using a TxTag paid only $16.08 each way for their use of the segments of the highway run by TxDot between 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. In November 2016, that price was further reduced to $8.04—the same rate that cars pay—and extended through August of this year. There aren’t readily-available statistics on how much traffic has increased as a result of this latest reduction, but a similar program in 2013 saw a 36 percent increase in eighteen-wheeler traffic on the toll road—exactly the kind of traffic that it was designed to attract, and the kind that could ease I-35 congestion.
Whatever the specific numbers of drivers attracted by the year-plus price reduction may be, the result has clearly been promising: On Wednesday, the SH 130 Concession Company announced that it had emerged from bankruptcy. Since entering Chapter 11, the company eliminated more than a billion dollars in debt and securing $260 million in new financing, according to the Texas Tribune. Cintra divested from the company and new investors took over.
What this all means for the future of SH 130 is still ultimately unclear. These days, driving down the highway is encouraging. Cars on a highway shouldn’t be a revelation, but for most of SH 130’s troubled existence, wheels on the ground couldn’t be taken for granted. If the truck traffic dies out when the toll relief ends, this successful stretch may just be a blip in the highway’s history—but for now, SH 130 seems to have found a path to viability, even if it took the long road to get there.