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On driving the empty private toll road

Robert Rivard takes a ride on the lonely private toll road SH 130.

Speed Limit 85

Let me explain: SH 130, completed in October 2012, runs from an intersection just east of Seguin on I-10 to an intersection just north of Georgetown on I-35, allowing north-south traffic to avoid Austin’s congestion.

My wife and I took it in November to drive to Dallas. Getting to Seguin took us 48 miles out of our way. After we got on SH 130 the ride was scenic and relaxing, and driving 85 mph posed no challenges. However, that was partly because we were nearly alone for much of the trip — there was usually only one vehicle in sight ahead and behind us.

Coming back, we stayed on I-35 all the way back to San Antonio. It was stop-and-go through Austin in congestion dominated by heavy trucks — there were a dozen in sight at any one time. Even though we did not have to go through Seguin, the trip back took an hour longer.

But the trip back, for all its headaches, was also free. SH 130 is a toll road, although one without toll booths. If you have a TxTag transponder in your back windshield your account is billed automatically. Otherwise, cameras read your license plate and the car’s registered owner is sent a bill, which is about one-fourth higher than the toll for someone with a TxTag account. Those bills are sent out monthly and we did not get ours until nearly two months after we made the trip.

Meanwhile, the side trip to Seguin makes more sense when you realize that the road was not intended for San Antonio commuters, but for trucks carrying Mexican commerce to and from Laredo. SH 130 is just one leg of the evocatively named Pickle Parkway, named after J. J. “Jake” Pickle (1913-2005), who was a U.S. congressman representing part of the Austin area from 1963-1995. The Pickle Parkway actually starts at the intersection of I-35 and Loop 410 in southwest San Antonio, follows 410 east around the outside of the city to I-10, then follows I-10 east past Seguin to the SH 130 intersection, and then takes SH 130 north to its juncture with I-35 north of Georgetown.

In the end, driving the Pickle (we’ll see if that phrase enters the language) only adds about 10 miles to a trip between, say, Laredo and Dallas, and that seems like a small price to pay to avoid Austin’s (as well as San Antonio’s) congestion. But you also have to pay a toll—mine, for a passenger car, was nearly $20 and a heavy truck would be charged three to five times more.

Stuck in the shadow of big rigs while crawling past downtown Austin, I got the impression that it might be wiser to, on the contrary, bribe drivers to take SH 130.

See here for previous blogging on this topic. As you may recall, the operator is teetering on the brink of default, so this road may not be “privatized” for that much longer. Rivard points out that this route was once part of what would have been the Trans Texas Corridor. Doesn’t make you feel good about how that project might have turned out based on this. Read the whole thing and see what you think.

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