Wear: Busting the myth of a vacant Texas 130 tollway

Today, in Central Texas truisms that just ain’t true: The Texas 130 tollway is an empty ribbon of concrete.

That was fairly true back in 2008 and 2009, soon after the northern 49-mile stretch of the four-lane highway opened east of Round Rock and Austin. And even now traffic is fairly light in the north and south quadrants, and uncongested for the entire the length outside of morning and evening commute times. Want to go at the 80 mph speed limit? You can do so almost all of the time.

But, as I found out Thursday, you can also find yourself going 15 to 20 mph, or even coming to a dead stop briefly, in the part between U.S. 290 and Pflugerville. And the big picture is that traffic on Texas 130, depending on the section of the road, has doubled, tripled and even almost quadrupled over the past six years as development has occurred along the corridor.

A whole lot of people are paying to use Texas 130, in other words.

I tell you this in the context of some big talk this past week in a Texas House committee about wiping out the tolls on Texas 130 and its companion tollway, Texas 45 Southeast, which connects Texas 130 to Interstate 35 at Buda. The idea — not a new or unusual one, based on the dozens of emails I’ve gotten over the years — is that the state ought to pay whatever it takes to retire the debt on the tollways and thus remove the tolls. Then, the thinking goes, a whole lot people driving cars and trucks on I-35 through Austin instead would choose to take the eastern loop and ease congestion in the middle of town.

And yes, it is no doubt true: Take away the $8.04 one-way toll on Texas 130 and Texas 45 Southeast (triple that for multi-axle trucks) and a lot more cross-country travellers would choose to go that extra 12 miles and avoid traffic slowdowns in Austin.

But it would come at a major cost, both in lost toll revenue and capital unavailable for other road projects. And given the growth in traffic already on Texas 130, it would accelerate progress toward the time when Texas 130 itself will see significant congestion. So policymakers will have a tough choice on their hands.

I had been alerted to the emerging traffic situation out on Texas 130 by Melvin Lindsey, a friend from my football officiating side job. Lindsey, who is retired (though not from the football field, where he has been blowing whistles for 50 years), lives out that way. For two days in a row, Lindsey used the flyover from the U.S. 290 tollway to go north on Texas 130 toward Pflugerville, and both days he ran into a significant traffic slowdown for the next mile or so.

Was there a wreck up ahead, I asked? Not that he could tell, Lindsey said. So I went out to take a look myself.

The first time I came over the flyover, at about 5 p.m. one weekday, I never really slowed down, going 70 mph or so all the way up to where Texas 130 meets Texas 45 North. So I circled back toward U.S. 290 and, sure enough, by the time I got to Parmer Lane I could see cars on the northbound side eking along slowly. I made a U-turn at Parmer and headed back north (yes, my TxTag got a workout that afternoon).

This time, after getting back on Texas 130 at about 5:15 p.m, the traffic was very slow, 20 mph at most. And south of the Gregg-Manor exit, on a bridge over Gilleland Creek, I came to a complete stop. For the first time ever on Texas 130. (It shows what a transportation nerd I am, that on some level I found this exciting.)

Things picked up quickly and I was back up to 60 mph long before Texas 45 North. For an Austinite, this qualified as minor congestion, a blip. But think of it as a harbinger.

As for traffic overall on Texas 130, it has definitely been growing. TxDOT divides those 49 miles into four segments operationally, with a main toll plaza in each where a car has to pay $1.75 (with a toll tag, or $2.33 if you pay by mail). Traffic in the north segment has gone up 165 percent in the past six years. In the next part between Hutto and U.S. 290 (where I hit the congestion), traffic has doubled to more than 60,000 vehicles a day.

At the toll plaza between U.S. 290 and Texas 71, almost 40,000 cars and trucks a day were passing by on average during 2015, more than 150 percent above 2009. And in the southern section near the Circuit of the Americas, the 2015 average traffic count of 25,528 vehicles a day was 286 percent above the 2009 level.

All of this traffic and tolling produced $86 million on Texas 130 in fiscal 2015 and $6 million on Texas 45 Southeast, in both cases almost 30 percent above the toll revenue from fiscal 2014. It is that money that people are proposing to forego in the hope of luring more traffic from I-35.

But the debt on bonds sold to build those roads, about $3.2 billion that would be paid back over the next 30 years, would still be there. So if the tolls went away, TxDOT would have to make those debt payments out of tax dollars. Where would that money come from?

Well, remember that bonanza of new money for TxDOT from the constitutional amendments passed in 2014 and 2015? In time, that will be about $5 billion a year statewide. The Austin district would get something like $400 million a year, money that could be spent to expand I-35, Loop 360, MoPac and RM 620, among others.

Except that if the tolls on Texas 130 and Texas 45 Southeast went away, somewhere between a third and a half of that $400 million would go to pay off a road that is already there, meaning some of those other road projects would not happen or would happen later. And the money for maintaining the road now and forever would also come from those tax dollars, not tolls.

As I said, tough choice.

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