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Texas 130 a bumpy road southeast of Austin, and not just financially

A little over two years into its operation, the section of Texas 130 southeast of Austin has been plagued by heaving, bumpy pavement that has forced the private company that built it to recommend speeds lower than the road’s much ballyhooed 85 mph limit in places, and to initiate repairs on about 6 percent of the 41-mile tollway.

Bright orange 75 mph signs, advisory only, showed up over the past couple of months in at least four spots between Mustang Ridge and Lockhart. Several sections of the road, buckled by expanding and contracting clay soils underneath, are rough in that 10 miles north of Lockhart, with a rumbling, dangerous washboard effect that tends to last for a couple of seconds each time.

Matt Pierce, chief operating officer with the SH 130 Concession Company, which spent $1.3 billion of its own money building the southern 41-mile stretch of the road under a 50-year lease with the Texas Department of Transportation, said repairs actually began last summer on a section near Seguin, and have accelerated lately north of Lockhart.

The company has treated the clay-rich soil beneath the pavement with lime in certain areas, hoping to lessen its tendency to shrink during dry spells and swell when it rains, Pierce said. It also plans to lay down 20,000 tons of asphalt in making the repairs.

The company, a partnership between Spanish toll road company Cintra and San Antonio-based Zachry Construction Co., will spend at least $2.2 million on the repairs, which are about 50 percent complete, Pierce said. As with the original construction cost, the company is paying for the repairs, not taxpayers.

“With any construction project, especially one that’s built on the types of soils that exist here, anyone who builds anticipates some (pavement) movement from time to time,” he said. “The contractors did a good job dealing with the extreme drought they were building in.”

The problems and repairs come just as the financially challenged concession company is beginning to see hopeful signs with the road’s traffic. Last year, with the toll road’s traffic at about 30 percent of original projections, the company’s reserves ran low and it had difficulty making payments on the $1.18 billion it borrowed to build its part of Texas 130. The company and its lenders are still negotiating a refinancing of that debt, Pierce said.

But toll transactions in 2014 were up 16 percent, at almost 6 million (or about 16,400 a day), and truck transactions increased 34 percent. A car or truck can incur more than one toll transaction on a single trip by driving through more than one tolling point, and on a long road like Texas 130, many do.

The truck toll transaction increase occurred in a year when the company charged trucks the full price to drive the road (four times what cars pay) for the full year. In 2013, on the other hand, trucks paid the car rate for two-thirds of the year under a discount program covered by TxDOT.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Pierce said.

Texas 130, which spans 90 miles between its northern terminus near Georgetown and its southern end near Seguin, was built in two stages, with radically different approaches.

TxDOT built the northern 49 miles, opening it in stages between 2006 and 2008. Then TxDOT and the concession company signed a 50-year lease for the southern 41 miles, putting the design, construction, maintenance and financial onus for that section on the private company. Construction of the southern section began in 2009 and the road opened in 2012 to national media coverage because of the 85 mph speed limit.

The entire 90 miles of Texas 130 lies over rolling countryside known for having clay-rich soils that expand during wet weather, and contract when it is dry, and both are bad for roads. Beyond that variance, engineers say that parts of roads built over hills tend to have drier soil below them, with wetter soils in low lying spots. Highway designers try to combat that problem in a number of ways, principally by controlling the type of soil laid down for several feet beneath the pavement.

In addition, TxDOT decided in its section to pave the road with concrete, while the concession company used asphalt, which is typically less expensive than concrete. Concrete pavement is denser, harder and more cohesive, engineers say, but also more expensive to repair if it does buckle and crack. The TxDOT section, officials say, has seen little of the kind of buckling plagued the southern stretch.

“Aside from routine repairs associated with maintaining a new highway, TxDOT has not experienced any maintenance issues out of the ordinary” on the segments it built, agency spokesman Bob Kaufman said.

The concession company and its contractors, on the other hand, had daunting problems months before the 2012 opening of the southern section, spending what a spokesman said at the time would be $30 million to replace or buttress sections of pavement and embankments along the road.

Given the unpredictably of building in that area, and limits on how much TxDOT or anyone else can spend preparing the ground, some warping of pavement is inevitable, said Bob Daigh, Williamson County’s senior director of infrastructure and TxDOT’s Austin district engineer during the construction and opening of the agency’s section of Texas 130.

“The designers face an extraordinary challenging problem to design pavement over expansive clays,” Daigh said. “It is as much an art as it is science because of the high variability of the earth beneath the road. In the northern sections that we built, we faced similar challenges, and there are areas where we were successful. And there are some zones where we were less successful.”

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