Serene, gently rolling rural Texas scenery. A speed limit of 85 miles per hour—the highest in the nation. A sense of eerie isolation. And an hour cut from a drive to Dallas. That’s what $19.59 gets on you the new Texas State Highway 130.
Or did — the toll went up slightly to $19.75 Jan. 1.
Let me explain: SH 130, completed in October 2012, runs from an intersection just east of Seguin on I-10 to an intersection just north of Georgetown on I-35, allowing north-south traffic to avoid Austin’s congestion.
My wife and I took it in November to drive to Dallas. Getting to Seguin took us 48 miles out of our way. After we got on SH 130 the ride was scenic and relaxing, and driving 85 mph posed no challenges. However, that was partly because we were nearly alone for much of the trip — there was usually only one vehicle in sight ahead and behind us.
Coming back, we stayed on I-35 all the way back to San Antonio. It was stop-and-go through Austin in congestion dominated by heavy trucks — there were a dozen in sight at any one time. Even though we did not have to go through Seguin, the trip back took an hour longer.
But the trip back, for all its headaches, was also free. SH 130 is a toll road, although one without toll booths. If you have a TxTag transponder in your back windshield your account is billed automatically. Otherwise, cameras read your license plate and the car’s registered owner is sent a bill, which is about one-fourth higher than the toll for someone with a TxTag account. Those bills are sent out monthly and we did not get ours until nearly two months after we made the trip.
Meanwhile, the side trip to Seguin makes more sense when you realize that the road was not intended for San Antonio commuters, but for trucks carrying Mexican commerce to and from Laredo. SH 130 is just one leg of the evocatively named Pickle Parkway, named after former U.S. Rep. J. J. “Jake” Pickle (1913-2005), who represented the Austin area in Congress from 1963-1995. The Pickle Parkway actually starts at the intersection of I-35 and Loop 410 in southwest San Antonio, follows 410 east around the outside of the city to I-10, follows I-10 east past Seguin to the SH 130 intersection, and then takes SH 130 north to its juncture with I-35 north of Georgetown.
In the end, driving the Pickle (we’ll see if that phrase enters the language) only adds about 10 miles to a trip between, say, Laredo and Dallas, and that seems like a small price to pay to avoid Austin’s (as well as San Antonio’s) congestion. But you also have to pay a toll—mine, for a passenger car, was nearly $20 and a heavy truck would be charged three to five times more.
Stuck in the shadow of big rigs while crawling past downtown Austin, I got the impression that it might be wiser to, on the contrary, bribe drivers to take SH 130.
Such a move would certainly gladden the hearts of the managers of SH 130 Concession Company LLC. While SH 130 north of Mustang Ridge was built by the State of Texas, the last 41 miles from Mustang Ridge to Seguin were built by that private firm, a consortium of Cintra, a Spanish construction company, and San Antonio’s own Zachry American Infrastructure, a subsidiary of Zachry Construction Company. The partners spent about $1.3 billion, and in return, collect most of the tolls.
The chief result is that a driver has to consult two different sources for SH 130 toll information. The consortium’s site has a toll calculator that covers the segment it owns and acts like the rest does not exist. The TxDOT toll site likewise doesn’t cover SH 130 south of Mustang Ridge.
That may change if things get worse for the SH 130 Concession Co. Moody’s has downgraded the consortium’s bonds to junk status as traffic on the road had not been increasing fast enough to cover debt payments. (The consortium’s spokesperson did not respond to requests for information about its current financial status.) In case of bankruptcy, presumably the state would consolidate SH 130 operations, both on the ground and on the web.
That would be the last nail in the coffin of the TxDOT Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC) initiative, of which SH 130 was the only survivor. Recognizing that local traffic was causing congestion where highways went through urban areas, the TTC would have amounted to “super-corridors” that would have routed long-distance traffic of all sorts around population centers. Each corridor would have included a toll road, a railroad, and utilities – including oil and gas pipelines. The toll roads would have been divided into truck and passenger lanes, and the railroads into freight, commuter, and bullet lines.
The first TTC (of which SH 130 is a remnant) would have gone from Gainesville to Laredo, sidestepping the D-FW area, Austin, and San Antonio. A second would have gone from Texarkana to the Rio Grande Valley, sidestepping Houston. Other corridors would have connected Houston with Dallas, and (grandest of all) El Paso with Orange. Construction would have been on a scale that would have heartened the pharaohs. Private money was, somehow, supposed to pay for the whole thing.
After a decade of fighting massive skepticism, TxDOT abandoned further TTC planning in 2009. If Moody’s is correct about SH 130’s financial prospects, the skeptics will be proven right. On the other hand, in a few decades, gridlocked in our hovercars, we may be cursing the day TxDOT abandoned the rest of the TTC.
In the meantime, SH 130 is good for a pleasant drive.
This story was originally published on Jan. 25, 2015.
*Featured/top image: SH 130 signage. Photo courtesy of SH 130 Concession Company (via Facebook).