Wear: Texas 130 ailed by lack of people above ground, too much clay below

When it comes to toll roads, what matters is location, location, location.

OK, that expression actually applies to real estate. But I don’t cover that topic.

For that part of the Texas 130 tollway south of Mustang Ridge, the privately built and run section with the splashy 85 mph speed limit, the location has been a problem in more than one way.

The road, first of all, runs through some of the most sparsely populated parts of Central Texas. Mustang Ridge has less than a thousand people, Lockhart just over 13,000 and Seguin, 40 miles away at the road’s south end, 26,600. Maybe if everyone who lives in those three communities used the road every day, that would be enough for it to get into the black. But the babies and elementary school kids don’t tend to drive much, and many of the other folks have other places to go.

Having a heaping mess of people in what the transportation wonks call the “travel shed” matters. That’s why the northern section of Texas 130, the part close to Austin, is doing better. It’s right next to Round Rock, Manor and Georgetown, and splits fast-growing Pflugerville and Hutto as well. It’s handy to Bastrop County, and it has a racetrack/concert venue along it.

And then there’s the general location of that southern section, what it goes to and from. For an Austinite, it makes sense to use it only if you’re going to Lockhart (although it’s so close that the frontage roads along the high-speed toll lanes can get you there in only a couple of extra minutes), Seguin or perhaps Corpus Christi and South Padre Island. But it’s too far out of the way for San Antonio and, particularly, for Houston, even at 85 mph.

Traffic on it through the middle of last year was about 30 percent below initial projections, although recent toll statistics show business picking up. But what the toll operator really needs, sometime well before 2062 when its lease runs out, is for a whole lot more people to fall in love with the undulating slopes of Caldwell and Guadalupe counties. Or perhaps the Austin City Council will clamp down on barbecue smokers, leading to a mass exodus to the land of Kreuz and Smitty’s.

Then there’s that other element of its location: the ground underneath it.

The SH 130 Concession Co., which built the 41 miles of four-lane tollway under a 50-year lease with the Texas Department of Transportation, had to lay the road down over territory notorious for clay-infused soils that yo-yo through drought and deluge. And that can be very hard on a road above.

As the concession company, which has had the road open just 29 months, knows very well. To its sorrow, and financial pain.

As I reported last week, several sections have already begun to buckle, something that you really don’t want to experience at 85. So the company slapped up some temporary 75 mph signs (a speed that still requires some nerve to surf over a washboard section) and has begun to “mill and overlay,” removing the irregular pavement surface and filling it with a smooth coat of fresh asphalt.

The company says the problem affected about 12 lane-miles of the 237 lane-miles of tollway, frontage roads, flyovers and ramps it built and maintains. As the company told me, the cup is basically 94 percent full. But that other 6 percent? It’s going to cost at least $2.2 million to fix this time. And there likely will be other times over the next half century.

It’s hard to say how much of this is the company’s fault (or rather, its road designers, soil engineers and contractors) versus just the bad dirt. As one highway engineer familiar with these clay soils told me last week, “Mother Nature always wins out.”

TxDOT, which built the rest of Texas 130, the 49 miles directly to the north, seems to be having fewer problems even though it is built over what has historically been a similarly problematic stretch of the Blackland Prairie. That could be due to better design, the concrete pavement (the private, southern part is asphalt) or more careful road construction.

Or maybe, yes, location.

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