Monday, August 17, 2009

Spanish toll road operator begins construction on Texas 130 segment of Trans-Texas Corridor (TT-35)

Construction revs up on new tollway toward Seguin

New section will offer less congested route to Houston.


Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2009

You have to know what you're looking for to see the beginnings of construction on yet another Central Texas toll road, at least at the part nearest Austin.

Crews have dug the holes and laid the foundations of some of the columns that will be the interchange between Texas 45 Southeast and the new, 40-mile-long extension of Texas 130 as it heads to Lockhart. Near Maha Creek, the median between the north- and southbound lanes of U.S. 183 is a mishmash of black-dirt hillocks as crews work on future bridges over the creek.

Further south, near where U.S. 183 crosses Texas 21, owners of an Exxon station recently moved it several hundred feet east of U.S. 183 to make way for the wide tollway and access lanes to come. And down near Seguin, where Texas 130 will meet Interstate 10, concrete pillars for an interchange are poking out of the ground.

Construction of Texas' first public-private toll road began quietly several weeks ago, with a lack of fanfare given all the controversy such tollway agreements have generated over the past five years. A consortium called SH 130 Concession Co., led by Spanish toll road operator Cintra and Zachry Construction, is financing the $1.35 billion project and will operate it (and, it hopes, profit from it) over the next 50 years. It should open to traffic in 2012.

Just two other public-private tollways in Texas are in the works, both at least two years further back in the development process and unlikely to break ground soon. Cintra is the lead actor on both projects, which involve adding toll lanes on Interstate 820, Texas 183 and Texas 121 in Tarrant County and on the LBJ freeway in Dallas.

The new section of Texas 130 (the Texas Department of Transportation built the first 49 miles from Georgetown to Mustang Ridge) will offer a new possibility: getting from Austin to Houston without having to drive through the traffic lights and growing congestion on Texas 71 in Bastrop. But that may be a tough sell.

From east of the Austin airport, it's about 85 miles on Texas 71 to Columbus, where Texas 71 meets Interstate 10. Take Texas 130 and I-10 there instead, and the trip will be almost 135 miles, at a cost of more than $7 for a car, close to $30 for big trucks, plus extra gasoline or diesel.

Even with higher speed limits — as much as 80 mph on the tollway — that alternative is unlikely to entice many people. It might make sense for people bound for Corpus Christi and the Rio Grande Valley.

But Texas 130's main reason-to-be was as a bypass of Interstate 35 in the San Antonio-to-Georgetown corridor. So far, traffic on the 49-mile piece east of Austin that opened in 2006 and 2007 has been light, about 9 percent below projections this budget year. And for an 18-wheeler to take the entire 89 miles, once it's open, the one-way price will be more than $50.

Stout. Truckers may need a bypass when they see that, the kind that requires a surgeon.

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