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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.

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image by formulanone//Flickr, via creative commons license

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.

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  • Donnaasterner

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  • Hammer

    Just another of Perry’s boondoggles exemplifying his idea of demand & supply.

    • Peter Samuel

      Not a boondoggle because no taxpayer money in it. It was a folly of inflated traffic expectations, but at the expense of lenders, investors. And a valuable lesson to be skeptical about modeled forecasts. I hope they experiment more with lower tolls to up their traffic.

      • MrKnobs

        Lower tolls for passenger vehicles makes complete sense. It reduces the congestion cost (delays, increased fuel consumption, accidents, pollution etc) for commuters who would otherwise crawl the virtual parking lot of I35 during those hours. Lower trolls for trucks will just destroy I30 very quickly – which I have to admit is much better than destroying I35 repeatedly.

      • MrKnobs

        Lower tolls for passenger vehicles makes complete sense. It reduces the congestion cost (delays, increased fuel consumption, accidents, pollution etc) for commuters who would otherwise crawl the virtual parking lot of I35 during those hours. Lower trolls for trucks will just destroy SH30 very quickly – which I have to admit is much better than destroying I35 repeatedly.

        • Peter Samuel

          They will only keep tolls lower if the increase in traffic is proportionately greater than the reduction in toll rates, so it increases revenues. It is a business after all. I just urged experimenting with lower tolls in the hope it might raise revenues.

  • Susan Smith

    We drove it both headed north and again a few days later headed back south. We were in our pickup pulling a double axle 5th wheel trailer. We were bowled over when we received a bill for $119. We haven’t been back on it!

  • Jana Mae

    I want to get to the North Shore of Lake Travis as fast as possible from my home in a Houston suburb. It’s worth every penny.

  • MrKnobs

    The problem is the damage to a roadway goes up with the fourth power of the load. That is to say that when you double the weight of a vehicle, you get 16 times the damage. Just one fully loaded axle on a big truck is equal to the pavement damage of 10,000 passenger cars! Of COURSE it should cost more for an 18 wheeler than a passenger car! The solution isn’t making it cheaper for trucks, it’s DIVERTING through trucks to the SH130 so they don’t have keep repairing I35 so often at taxpayer expense!

  • Bobcat

    I drove 18-wheelers for a few companies. Some allowed us to use the toll road. Others didn’t. I would not work for the didn’ts again. Driving through Austin was a nightmare, even in the middle of the night if there happened to be a construction project. I remember being stopped long enough during a training run that I was able to perform a 30-minute post trip inspection ON I-35 just south of the river downtown.

  • Jay Trainor

    Talk to anyone who tried this route the first time and headed south on 130 thinking they are going, as indicated on the sign, to San Antonio but ends up in Seguin and you will hear an irate customer. Sure this was a sweetheart deal between Zackry and Gov. Good Hair but one would think they would have used the opportunity to actually do some good by saving time to get people to San Antonio.

    A decade later, here we are with former Gov. Perry now elevated to DOE Secretary and Gov. Abbott following the same path as his predecessor to play insider sweetheart dealer. To heck whether it helps the general public. The special interests must have their pound of flesh (read putting their hands into our pockets). No politician has paid for the abuse of office. It’s just the accepted, “Texas Way” of doing business.

  • Gerard Neumann

    Too many cliches