Sunday, May 18, 2008

"Is paying to take Texas 130 to save time a good bet? Only for high rollers."

The Great Race: Texas 130 loses to I-35

In unscientific experiment, your columnist pays $6 to get there 20 percent slower

May 19, 2008

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

Uh, maybe we just hit a light traffic day.

Based on a highly unscientific experiment conducted last week by your transportation columnist and accomplice Andrea Ball, taking the Texas 130 tollway as an alternative to Interstate 35 might not be such a good idea. At least not all the time, at least not yet. But I get ahead of myself.

Texas 130, if you don't know, branches off southeast from I-35 north of Georgetown, swings past Hutto, Manor and the Austin airport and then connects to U.S. 183 near Mustang Ridge. After a slight jog northward, you can get back to I-35 via FM 1327. In about a year, another toll road, Texas 45 Southeast, will in effect replace the seven-mile-long FM 1327 leg of that loop.

The tollways have been sold as a speedier alternative to the ravages of I-35 rush hour traffic. Toll road proponents have said that truckers, in particular, will flock to Texas 130 (and, eventually, Texas 45 Southeast) because time is money to them. Even with a $24 cash toll for truckers ($6 cash for passenger cars and pickups, $5.40 with a toll tag), the argument goes, it's worth it to save the time.

So I decided to test that claim. I'd drive the tollway during rush hour and recruit a colleague to drive I-35 at the same time, then compare notes.

The hardest part, it turned out, was getting a volunteer.

However, Andrea, who writes a philanthropy column among her other duties, graciously agreed (well, maybe not so graciously, as you'll see below) to be my transportation lab rat.

So last Monday morning, after synchronizing our watches on a frontage road just north of Texas 130's departure from I-35, and agreeing that both of us would drive no faster than 70 mph in unrestricted traffic, we headed off, me to the tollway and Andrea on I-35. Who got to the intersection of FM 1327 and I-35 first?

Andrea's account

(Based on copious notes she somehow took while driving at highway speed):

Early morning on I-35? I should still be sleeping. Maybe I am sleeping.

Awake or not, I am well prepared for my journey into the bowels of Austin traffic.

Nutz Over Chocolate Luna Bars? Check. Bottle of water? Yep. US Magazine to entertain me during the inevitable standstill traffic? Of course.

It's 7:15 a.m. I reset my trip odometer at the Texas 130 overpass. Traffic is light, and my 1997 Saturn clips along at a speedy 70 mph.

At 7:27 a.m. I hit my first patch of traffic at Exit 252 in Round Rock. Drivers slow down to 25 mph. Red brake lights dot the still-gray morning. I'm irritated. Bad traffic already? I hate Ben. Hate him.

By 7:29 a.m., the knot has unsnarled itself. Drivers hit the gas, quickly climbing to 50 mph or so. Not bad. Maybe I don't hate Ben as much as I thought I did.

The brake lights are back at 7:35 a.m., just as I hit the Yager Lane exit. Then, a few seconds later, we are once again cruising.

By 7:39 a.m., I am questioning myself. Have I misjudged you, I-35? Are you, in fact, the interstate highway of my dreams? You are so welcoming that even the other drivers are pleasantly courteous. (Except you, White Nissan. You know what you did.) My love beats strong for this much-maligned stretch of blacktop.

Three minutes later, I-35 and I are on the rocks. I'm in standstill traffic near the Super 8 Motel just south of Cameron Road.

Suddenly, the jam loosens. The next 18 minutes are a driver's dream. Bye bye, Capitol. See ya, Riverside Drive. Later, Stassney Lane.

By 8 a.m., 43.3 miles from our mutual starting point, I am sitting on the I-35 frontage road near FM 1327, waiting for Ben to arrive. I am skeptical. Something stinks here, and it's not just my car.

Meanwhile, on the toll road

The drive on Texas 130 is predictably uneventful and stress-free. With only one car visible about a quarter mile ahead and none in the rearview mirror, I set the cruise control to 70 mph.

I will have to tap the breaks only once in the next 46.8 miles of toll road. Much of the time there are no cars within 100 yards of me, and I see less than two dozen 18-wheelers the whole trip. The view is mostly of cows, green fields and old farm buildings.

Because the southern 8.7 miles of Texas 130 opened only two weeks ago and is still in a free promotional period, my toll tag will get hit with only $4.05 rather than the $5.40 that it will cost starting later this summer.

At 8 a.m., I am turning west on FM 1327. I pull up to Andrea's car at 8:09 p.m. Taking the toll road cost me nine minutes. And the toll I paid. But that's not all it cost.

My total mileage: 54.8 miles, 11.5 miles more than the direct I-35 route. My Taurus tells me that I got 23.7 miles per gallon, so the extra mileage cost me a little less than a half-gallon of gas. That's another $1.75 or so. I averaged 60.6 mph, Andrea 57.7 mph.

So, at rush hour, I paid almost $6 to get there 20 percent slower.

OK, some caveats. Classes are done at most Austin colleges, which might take some student and staff traffic off I-35. The day we did our test drives, the KVET traffic guy called traffic "lighter than normal." Maybe we did our drive slightly too early to catch the worst snarls. Afternoon rush hour traffic is more concentrated (I plan to repeat this experiment soon in the afternoon). No tractor-trailer rigs happened to jackknife on this day. Texas 45 Southeast, which would have save me two or three minutes (but cost me another buck or so), isn't there yet.

And it's not 2015, or 2025, when traffic on I-35 might actually live down to Andrea's expectations every day of the year.

But for now, is paying to take Texas 130 to save time a good bet? Only for high rollers.

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