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SH 130

SH130 operator emerges from bankruptcy

Good for them.

The firm that oversees a stretch of highway with the country’s fastest speed limit says it is on better financial footing and under new ownership.

The SH 130 Concession Company, which operates a 41-mile stretch of the State Highway 130 toll road north of Mustang Ridge, announced Wednesday that it has exited bankruptcy a year after filing for it, while removing over a billion dollars in debt and attracting $260 million in new financing.

“SH 130 Concession Company has emerged from the Chapter 11 process as a much stronger company,” Andy Bailey, the company’s new CEO, said in a release.

[…]

Brian Cassidy, an Austin-based lawyer for Locke Lord, one of many firms that helped SH 130 navigate its bankruptcy, noted that the company kept the highway open while it restructured its debt. The $260 million in new financing comes in the form of a loan, which represents the restructured company’s only current direct debt, according to company spokeswoman Kate Miller Morton.

“One of the criticisms that you hear periodically about public-private partnerships is that they somehow put the public at risk of having to cover private sector obligations,” Cassidy said. “The fact is, if the agreements are structured correctly — and this is an example of one that was — then that risk to the public sector doesn’t really exist.”

See here and here for the background. I’m certainly glad that this all happened without the taxpayers getting stuck with the check, but none of this makes SH 130 a better idea. There’s nothing in the story to indicate whether usage of the road has increased or not. I’m not surprised that some entity was willing to make a bet on this thing, but let’s be clear, that’s what it is. It may never have any better odds of making a profit.

SH 130 operator to give up its ownership stake

Another step on the road to bankruptcy.

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SH 130 Concession Co. filed a bankruptcy reorganization plan Friday that proposes transferring company ownership to its largest lenders, which include the Federal Highway Administration and a group of European banks. The company owes more than $1.6 billion. It is owned by Spanish road developer Cintra, the majority stakeholder, and San Antonio-based Zachry American Infrastructure.

[…]

The company paid TxDOT $125 million upfront for the rights to operate the road, which was built to bypass Interstate 35 traffic between San Antonio and Austin and then became state property. It also agreed to share some of its toll revenue with the state as part of the lease agreement.

Texas 130’s southern section, which connects to a state-operated section that ends in Georgetown, opened in 2012 and became known for its 85-mph speed limit, the highest in the country. But it immediately missed the company’s traffic projections, and Moody’s Investors Service assigned its debt a junk-bond rating three years ago as a result.

The company issued a substantial amount of debt to finance the $1.3 billion project. It owes about $551 million on a Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation loan from the Federal Highway Administration, and about $721 million on its bank loans, according to court filings.

A FHWA spokeswoman was not available for comment Friday afternoon.

The reorganization plan proposes that SH 130 Concession Co., under its lenders’ ownership, would continue to operate and maintain the road. The plan has yet to be approved by the court.

“It’s important to understand that we don’t expect any sudden changes,” Guy Russell, SH 130’s chief operating officer, said in an email. “The plan calls for a smooth transition period of up to 18 months during which SH 130 Concession Company will continue to operate the facility per usual.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Cintra and Zachry will take a bath if this goes forward, which is fine by me. I’m less fine with the Federal Highway Administration getting stiffed, though it’s not clear from this story if that may happen. I’m not sure there’s any lesson to be learned here beyond the obvious one of not building roads where there are no people, but I hope we at least grasp that one.

Lone Star Rail reboot: It’s all about the money

Isn’t it always?

The message was clear: If San Antonio-area officials aren’t willing to commit millions of dollars to planning a regional passenger rail line, Austin-area officials will reconsider their financial commitment to the project.

The Capital Area and Alamo Area metropolitan planning organizations met Wednesday to discuss the status of a proposed passenger rail line known as LSTAR and what role the agencies should have in it. The project, which would connect San Antonio and Georgetown, recently suffered a setback when Union Pacific pulled its tracks from a possible route.

In February, UP nixed the Lone Star Rail District’s proposal to use the company’s freight line tracks that parallels Interstate 35 for passenger rail service. The district, a government-funded agency that represents counties, cities and organizations in the I-35 corridor, is in the midst of an environmental study that has focused heavily on that route.

The district’s board met last week to discuss alternate routes — which could include building new tracks parallel to I-35 or Texas 130 — and voted to continue the environmental study by examining those options. But several officials at the joint MPO meeting expressed concern about the effect UP’s decision could have on the cost and timeline of a project that already has been under discussion for more than a decade.

“The financing of it is really a big question mark,” said Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff, vice chairman of the Alamo Area MPO. “We’ve already done a lot of work (on planning). Will we be able to utilize any amount of that data in choosing a different alternative?”

In 2007, the Alamo Area MPO set aside $20 million for the passenger service. Those funds, reserved for final design, right-of-way acquisition and construction, have not been spent yet.

In 2011, CAMPO also gave the district $20 million, nearly $12 million of which has been spent on planning the line. The board debated freezing the remainder late last month but ultimately decided to take a closer look at the project and reconsider the issue in June.

Hays County commissioner Will Conley, CAMPO’s chairman, said the board’s final decision on the matter could depend on whether the Alamo Area MPO agrees to foot some of the costs of planning the rail service. He said that commitment would demonstrate San Antonio-area officials’ confidence in the direction of the project.

“There are a lot of us — a majority of us — on the CAMPO board who have lost a lot of confidence in where we’re currently at,” he said. “Are you comfortable with the status quo? If you’re comfortable with the status quo, we would very much like you to make a commitment on the rest of the environmental document.”

See here and here for the background, and click over to the Express News story to see a map with the different route options specified. If the Union Pacific decision to not allow LSR to use its right of way is the death knell for this project, then the planning organizations’ eventual decision to reallocate funding will be the shovel and dirt to bury it. If they vote to keep the funding going, then there’s still a chance. We’ll see how it goes.

Lone Star Rail: Not dead yet

Just a flesh wound, actually.

The decision by Union Pacific to end its working relationship with Lone Star Rail District (LSRD) in February, was a blow in efforts to develop a passenger rail line between San Antonio and Austin.

But in a special meeting Friday in San Marcos, district directors reaffirmed their commitment to find a solution to growing traffic congestion along the Interstate 35 corridor.

The district’s board of directors voted 12-1, and asked the organization to continue its current Environmental Impact Study process, and ensure that the process includes all alternative options.

[…]

LSRD board members, in a special meeting, went over the progress of the district’s environmental impact process and current list of options. The district did pause work on the alternative involving UP, and moved onto focusing on exploring other options.

Many board members said Union Pacific’s choice to stop working with Lone Star Rail was disappointing, but that they hoped the company would return. The completion of the impact study is crucial to the project, because it would enable future funding, including federal money. The district expects to finish the environmental impact process by 2018.

John Rinard, senior programs director at Parsons Corp., an international construction and engineering organization, told the board that Union Pacific has a history of taking part in large-scale transit projects elsewhere in the country only to step back or withdraw altogether. In some cases, UP would return to a project.

“What you’re experiencing is not unique in the business world,” Rinard said, adding that rail companies such as UP are often concerned about project factors such as liabilities.

[…]

Rinard suggested that the Lone Star board, which includes several elected city and county leaders from all along the I-35 corridor, assert its political will and press forward with its goal of passenger rail.

“I wouldn’t say stop,” he said. “I cannot see them walking away from the project permanently. It’s a fantastic project. It has all the good points.”

Other alternatives being evaluated by LSRD include using the State Highway 130 corridor, the abandoned MoKan rail alignment, and new right-of-way parallel to the Union Pacific mainline, as well as hybrids of these options.

See here for the background. I have no idea how badly UP’s pullout affects the long-term likelihood of this project, but it can’t be good. I have always believed the concept has merit, but if they can’t use existing tracks, the price tag may well be too high. We’ll see if the governments that had been involved in this so far remain on board or not. The Statesman and the Current have more.

SH 130 operator files for bankruptcy

Boom.

Speed Limit 85

A private company that operates part of the Texas toll road with the highest speed limit in the country filed for bankruptcy Wednesday, fewer than three years after the section of the road it oversees first opened.

The SH 130 Concession Company, a partnership between Spain-based Cintra and San Antonio-based Zachry American Infrastructure, opened the 41-mile-long southern portion of the State Highway 130 toll road, from north of Mustang Ridge to Seguin, in October 2012 to much fanfare. In addition to the record 85 mile-per-hour speed limit, the company signed an unprecedented deal with the state to build and operate its section of the road for 50 years in exchange for a portion of the toll revenue.

[…]

SH 130 Concession Company CEO Alfonso Orol said in a statement that the road will continue to operate while it goes through Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.

“The filing will have no financial impact on the state of Texas,” Orol said. “It’s business as usual for our customers, employees, vendors, and surrounding communities during these proceedings.”

See here and here for the prior steps towards this seemingly inevitable point. The Statesman adds on.

The problem, despite the road’s potential for speed, has been low traffic. “The lingering effects of the recession,” the company said in a press release Wednesday, “reduced traffic volumes regionally during the project’s early years and delayed development along the largely rural SH 130 corridor.”

The building boom in Central Texas has largely bypassed Lockhart (located just east of Texas 130) and Caldwell County, and several large developments announced along the corridor are still only in aspirational form.

As of 2014, when the road had about 16,400 toll transactions a day, traffic was about 30 percent below the projections used in borrowing the money for the road. Original projections for 2015 and 2016 weren’t available Wednesday.

But use of the road, while not enough to meet the company’s financial obligations, has been improving. According to SH 130 Concession, the road had 5.15 million transactions in 2013, 5.99 million in 2014 (a 16.3 percent increase) and 6.9 million in 2015 (a 15.2 percent increase).

See here for all my SH 130 blogging. Will this actually affect operations of this ill-fated road? Who knows, and who would be able to tell if it did? I’m just wondering what the next stage of this story is.

Lone Star Rail setback

Bummer.

Union Pacific dealt a major blow to a proposal to connect San Antonio and Austin with passenger rail by pulling one of its tracks from a possible plan.

UP ended its agreement with the Lone Star Rail District to study the feasibility of running passenger trains on a freight line that parallels Interstate 35. The idea underpinned the district’s plans to build the passenger rail line, known as LSTAR, between San Antonio and Georgetown.

The agreement, signed in 2010, allowed UP and the district to study the corridor and the possibility of relocating the freight line. But Jeff DeGraff, spokesman for Union Pacific, said the district’s proposals didn’t adequately address concerns about how the passenger rail would affect the company’s freight operations.

“We chose to cancel the (agreement) and move forward with other projects and other things we need to deal with,” he said. “We just don’t think they’ve been able to come up with an arrangement that’s suitable for the needs of freight railroad as well as a passenger railroad.”

[…]

Bill Bingham, an attorney with the Austin-based law firm McGinnis Lochridge, said UP announced its decision in letter Tuesday. His firm represents the district.

“It was a bit of a surprise,” he said. “We thought really that we had been able to answer any concerns they had as we were proceeding.”

The district is in the midst of an environmental impact study that examines several possible routes for the passenger train, and Bingham said it could revise the plan if the UP tracks stay off-limits. But the UP tracks were the district’s best chance of advancing a proposal more than a decade in the making.

“That is really not a good thing,” said District 9 City Councilman Joe Krier, a longtime proponent of the passenger train. “You have to have an agreement with UP at some point to have access to their right of way.”

The decision could be a major setback in the district’s plans to secure a public-private partnership to establish the service. Several cities, including San Antonio, have put money toward planning the train service, but the district lacks the $2.4 billion needed to build it and relocate the UP route.

See here and here for the background. It’s a shame, because this isn’t an insurmountable obstacle, it’s a financial one. You’re not going to find a road-based solution to add capacity between Austin and San Antonio for $2.4 billion, and SH130 has clearly demonstrated that rerouting traffic around those cities has plenty of problems as well. Building a rail line in this increasingly populous corridor – remember, New Braunfels, San Marcos, and Georgetown are also growing like gangbusters – makes a lot of sense. This ought to be doable with a combination of local, state, and federal money. It sure would be nice if we could figure it out. The Statesman, Austin Business Journal, and KSAT have more.

Why that empty private toll road has been so empty

Someone did a study to try to answer that question.

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In the Austin area, more than 220,000 vehicles travel on I-35 on a daily basis. In contrast, SH 130, the tolled bypass around Austin only carries 40,000 vehicles daily. Why do more vehicles choose the I-35 route? What would make travelers, particularly big trucks, more likely to use SH 130?

Associate Research Scientist Tina Geiselbrecht at TTI’s Transportation Policy Research Center recently published a report titled Incentives for Truck Use of SH 130 aimed at understanding the trucking industry’s use of toll roads and the possibility of diverting large trucks to SH 130. Researchers conducted a traffic analysis and found only 14 percent of I-35 traffic volume is vehicles traveling through the region without stopping, and of that volume, only 1 percent are trucks. The other 86 percent of vehicles are local I-35 travelers.

The traffic data analysis shows, overall, SH 130 carries very few trucks. To better understand how to increase truck traffic on SH 130, Geiselbrecht and her team studied incentives for truck use of toll road SH 130.

Geiselbrecht and her team interviewed trucking industry leaders to get their thoughts on the following potential incentives:

  • higher speed limits on SH 130;
  • the presence of nearby amenities and associated facilities;
  • the provision of speed and travel times for alternate routes;
  • use of long combination vehicles (LCVs); and,
  • toll discounts.

The findings suggest many of these potential incentives would not cause a shift to SH 130. Because some operators say it’s not safe to operate large vehicles at high speeds and speed tends to increase the cost of a trip in terms of fuel consumption, higher speed limits are not an effective incentive. Providing travel time information near access points to SH 130 doesn’t motivate truck drivers to use toll roads either because interviews with industry professionals found they already use internal systems that show them travel times and alternate routes.

One potential incentive did arise from the interviews; the allowance of Long Combination Vehicles (LCVs). LCVs allow companies to transport more product on a trip, thereby offsetting some of the toll costs making it a feasible alternative.

“This study supports short- and long-term mobility policy and planning strategies on how to move freight more efficiently in and through Texas. Although diverting truck traffic to uncongested toll roads is positive, the literature, traffic data and interviews revealed the trucking industry is reluctant to use tolled facilities,” Geiselbrecht says. “So it may be a good idea to also think about how to get passenger vehicles to divert to SH 130 since they make up the majority vehicle volume on I-35.”

See here for all my prior blogging on this topic. Call me crazy, but I’m thinking this kind of study might have been useful before $1.3 billion got spent on this mess. Just a thought. By the way, not that it has anything to do with anything, but the Main Street light rail line has a higher daily ridership tally than all of SH 130. I don’t have a point to make with that, it just amuses me. Good luck getting some value out of this albatross. Link via Streetsblog.

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.

SH 130 operator in default

But it’s not default-default just yet.

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Although the company that built and operates the southern leg of the Texas 130 toll road recently managed to work out a payment extension with its lenders, an investor service that monitors the project still considers it in default.

Moody’s Investor Service issued a report last week, saying SH 130 Concession Company LLC did not have enough money to make a June 30 loan payment, which Moody’s predicted last month would likely happen.

“Moody’s view is that the failure to meet the full payment that was originally scheduled … constitutes a ‘default’ under Moody’s definition,” the July 8 report said.

However, the concession company worked out a deal with its senior lenders June 26, “which allowed for an undisclosed partial payment” and which also pushed back the deadline to pay off the remaining payment until Dec. 15, the report said.

That means the project is not in legal default. The report said the extension also gives the senior lenders time to restructure the debt.

[…]

In the case of a legal default, control of the project would transfer from the borrower to the lender, said Karan Bhanot, a finance professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s College of Business. That’s not what’s happening in this case.

Instead, Moody’s is applying its own, stricter definition of default.

See here for the background. I think the odds that they can escape legal default are slim, but I suppose one should never underestimate the ability of companies like that to wheedle extensions and exceptions for long periods of time. I just hope TxDOT is ready to pick up the pieces when it all falls apart.

Company operating SH 130 may default

Oops.

Speed Limit 85

The company behind a privately operated Texas toll road that sports the country’s fastest speed limit is dangerously close to defaulting on its debt, according to a credit rating agency.

According to a report released this week by Moody’s Investors Service, the SH 130 Concession Company, which operates the 41-mile southern portion of State Highway 130, is low on cash and scrambling to get an upcoming payment deadline waived,

The private consortium behind the project owes more than $1 billion and lacks the funding to pay off an upcoming debt payment due on June 30, according to the report. The report adds that the company has “depleted all but $3.3 million of available liquidity reserves.”

[…]

The company’s projections for traffic and toll revenue were overly optimistic. In October, Moody’s downgraded $1.1 billion of debt tied to the project by five notches, from B1 to Caa3, considered junk status. The financial situation has not markedly improved, according to the rating agency’s latest report.

“Fiscal 2013 revenue performance was about 60 percent below original forecast and fiscal 2014 is likely to be 70 percent below the original forecast,” the report states.

Company officials are working with the project’s lenders on waiving a portion of this month’s debt payment while not triggering an official default, according to the report. The company is also attempting to restructure its debt based on a new traffic and revenue study, according to the report.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. One hopes this new traffic and revenue study will be more reality-based than the previous ones were. I for one have always thought that the problem here is that this road is out in the middle of nowhere, but hey, I’m no expert, so what do I know? The Highwayman and EoW have more.

Maybe there’s a problem with building roads where there are no drivers

The high speed toll road keeps having problems relating to not having enough paying customers.

Speed Limit 85

SH 130 has not been the immediate success story its backers had hoped. Last week, lower-than-expected traffic revenue prompted credit ratings firm Moody’s Investors Service to severely downgrade the SH 130 Concession Company’s debt and warned that a default may not be far off. The project’s stumbles are likely to draw increased scrutiny of how Texas plans to fund future infrastructure projects, though local and state officials are working to distinguish SH 130 from other toll projects in the works.

Moody’s downgraded $1.1 billion of debt tied to the project by five notches, from B1 to Caa3, considered junk status. It’s the second time the firm has downgraded the project’s debt, following an earlier downgrade in April.

“Bottom line is we believe they have enough money for their December payment, but they do not have enough money for their June 2014 payment,” Moody spokesman David Jacobson said.

The threat of a default could prompt the SH 130 Concession Company, a partnership between Spain-based Cintra and San Antonio-based Zachry American Infrastructure, to refinance its debt next year or inject additional money into the project. TxDOT could view an ongoing cash-flow problem as reason to terminate its toll contract with the company decades ahead of schedule, according to Moody’s.

[…]

The consortium spent $1.3 billion to build the southern portion of SH 130, known as Segments 5 and 6. Combined with the publicly funded northern portion (Segments 1-4), SH 130 connects Georgetown to Seguin, providing a 90-mile bypass around San Antonio and Austin. TxDOT officials have expressed hope that the road would someday serve as a popular alternative to congested Interstate 35 for those driving through Central Texas. Backers, noting the 50-year contract with TxDOT, also predict that future development in Lockhart and other small towns along the toll road’s route would lead to increased traffic in the future.

But the road’s location — about 30 miles east of the most congested portions of Central Texas — was viewed as a challenge from the start. Most other toll projects around the state are similar to the MoPac Express in Austin, which is adding toll lanes to the median of a congested highway. At last week’s ceremony to celebrate the start of construction, Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization chairman Will Conley said the project’s location distinguishes it from SH 130.

“I think this project is fundamentally different,” Conley said. “[SH] 130, of course, is a greenfield project and, I think, more of a longer-term-type project. Whereas, the day this opens, this is going to impact an immediate need on MoPac.”

See here for more on the April downgrade. A big part of the problem here is that there’s very few people where SH 130 is. That’s by design, of course, since it was intended to be a low-traffic option, but it means almost no one hops on it because it’s convenient. You have to plan to take it. It’s difficult enough to get people to change habits when the alternative you propose is easy to use and right in front of them. Just getting to SH 130 means going miles out of your way. It’s not quite as far out a detour as I first thought – here’s a map; I’d forgotten how much I-35 veers to the east, which makes it fairly close to I-10 for the first thirty or so miles out of San Antonio – but even in San Antonio, it’s passing through lightly populated territory. The towns it passes through between San Antonio and Austin are much smaller than their I-35 counterparts, too – Seguin has about 25,000 people and Lockhart has about 11,000, while New Braunfels has 57,000 and San Marcos has 50,000. I guess the bet that the SH 130 investors were making is that the population will grow around the highway, and I’m sure eventually it will, but eastern San Antonio – I’m talking along I-10 outside Loop 410 – doesn’t look that much different to me today than it did 25 years ago when I left SA for Houston. There’s a bit more development out there, but it’s mostly industrial, not commercial or residential. You want that, go west and north. Maybe 25 years from now it’ll be more built up. I don’t think the SH 130 Concession Company can wait that long.

Building speculative privatized toll roads is risky business

Just ask the Texas 130 investors.

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Moody’s Investor Service has downgraded the credit rating of the private company that built and operates the Texas 130 toll road extension, a rating that could continue to drop unless traffic “aggressively” grows on the road in the next two years.

Moody’s issued the rating April 12 after putting the

SH 130 Concession Co., a partnership between Spanish-based Cintra and San Antonio’s Zachry American Infrastructure, on review in March.

The toll road, from Seguin north to South Austin, was billed as the nation’s fastest when it opened to drivers in late October, boasting an 85-mph speed limit.

But traffic counts on the road are about half the initial projections, the Moody’s report said, forcing the company to dip into its financial reserves to make loan payments and raising concerns about the possibility of future default.

A downgraded credit rating can indicate a greater risk to bondholders.

The report lists the company outlook as negative, which indicates the possibility of future credit downgrading in the next one to two years, Moody’s communications strategist David Jacobson said.

See here and here for the background. As EoW notes, the real issue is that Texas taxpayers will be on the hook for this in the event of a default or other inability by Texas 130 to pay. Keep that in mind if transportation funding gets added to the call of the special session as Sens. Williams and Nichols have requested.

More on that underutilized high speed toll road

More toll road travails.

Traffic counts on the new section of Texas 130, released Friday by the Texas Department of Transportation based on newspaper open records requests, show that the tollway southeast of Austin in its first couple of months was seeing fewer than 3,000 vehicles a day.

About 5 percent of those were big rigs in the 10 weeks between the road’s Oct. 24 opening and the end of the year, the period covered by open records requests filed with TxDOT by the American-Statesman and the San Antonio Express-News. The road saw 132 trucks with trailers per day between Mustang Ridge and Lockhart, and about 100 a day between Lockhart and Seguin.

Interstate 35, several miles to the west, saw more than 100,000 vehicles a day in 2011 counts taken by TxDOT.

The Texas Attorney General’s office rejected arguments from the Texas 130 Concession Co., which built and is operating the 85 mph road under a 50-year lease with TxDOT, that traffic and revenue information about the 41-mile tollway should not released to the public. The company had argued that the information constituted a trade secret and that disclosure would cause the company “competitive harm.”

The early numbers are about half of what the company predicted in 2008, according to Moody’s Investor Service, which is investigating whether credit ratings on the company’s $1.1 billion in debt on the road should be downgraded. The concession company, owned by a partnership of Spain-based Cintra and Zachry Construction Co. from San Antonio, spent about $1.3 billion building the road and paid TxDOT $140 million in lease payments.

That’s not a lot of traffic. The earlier story we heard was that the daily vehicle count was only about half of what had been originally estimated, but it didn’t say what that number actually was. I’m not sure what’s more remarkable, that the estimate was off by so much, or that 6,000 vehicles a day was considered worthwhile, at least at the beginning, for this project. If it’s mostly pass-through traffic that’s using SH 130, it’s certainly beneficial to get those vehicles off of I-35, but you really have to wonder how sustainable this is, and whether there might have been a more cost-effective solution.

Maybe there are fewer people who want to drive 85 than we thought

Oops.

The privately operated section of the Texas 130 tollway south of Mustang Ridge is attracting about half the predicted traffic, according to Moody’s Investor Service, prompting it to investigate downgrading credit ratings for more than $1.1 billion in debt attached to the toll road.

[…]

TxDOT’s contract with the concession company lays out complex procedures to determine how much TxDOT would pay the concession company to take over the road in the event of a default or for any other reason. The Moody’s report doesn’t mention the possibility of default.

Chris Lippincott, a spokesman for the concession company, said it is meeting “contractual obligations to operate and maintain a world-class highway. We remain confident that the recently opened SH 130 … will benefit our investors and the people of Texas.”

The transportation commission — which has operational control of Texas 130’s northern 49 miles but not the Cintra-Zachry section — [approved on Thursday] cutting truck tolls by two-thirds for the next year on the tollway as well as on connecting toll road Texas 45 Southeast. Multi-axle trucks, beginning Monday, would pay the same tolls as passenger vehicles and pickups.

The concession company has agreed to charge all vehicles the car rate as well during that period. That means that a truck, rather than paying as much as $61 to travel the entire 90 miles of Texas 130, would pay just over $17. In both cases, those are the pay-by-mail rates. A truck equipped with an electronic toll tag would pay 25 percent less.

TxDOT, in announcing the toll reduction for big trucks, said it was done to ease congestion on parallel Interstate 35. But the change, which TxDOT estimates will reduce toll revenue on Texas 130 and Texas 45 Southeast by $11 million over the next year, also could introduce some truckers to the high-speed tollway. The speed limit is 80 mph on the TxDOT section and 85 mph on the Cintra-Zachry section.

So maybe this isn’t the pathway to prosperity that the city of Lockhart dreamed it would be, though it is good news for the hogs. Maybe it’s just that the idea of driving 85 MPH isn’t quite as appealing as we thought, at least not at these prices. Who knows? Let’s just hope TxDOT doesn’t get stuck holding the bag. The Trib notes a side issue relating to the speed limit on the service roads for SH 130, and EoW has more.

“Please don’t mow down the wildlife”

As we know, the new 85 MPH toll road is now open, and while it is largely free of traffic, there are other obstacles to watch out for.

“That is a known pig route,” said Caldwell County Precinct 1 Constable Victor “Smitty” Terrell, who heard one of the hog-vs.-vehicle crashes on his police radio Wednesday night.

Like Texas 130 has the highest speed limit, Texas claims the largest feral hog population in the U.S. — 2.6 million.

It is so problematic that the state agriculture department runs a feral hog abatement program, including a contest called the “Hog Out Challenge,” in which counties compete to take the most swine by killing them, or trapping, snaring or capturing them “for purposes of immediate slaughter,” the rules say.

Caldwell County is competing in the challenge.

It’s unclear if road kill counts. Lockhart police Capt. John Roescher spotted at least three dead hogs on the side of Texas 130 at U.S. 183 on Thursday morning.

I suppose that’s one way to deal with the feral hog problem. It’s probably cheaper and less dangerous to shoot them from a helicopter than take them out with the family car, however. If you drive on SH 130 now, you will see road signs warning you of this hazard.

The SH 130 Concession Co. announced the sign plan Tuesday morning on its Facebook page. The signs will go up as soon as they can be made, said spokesman Chris Lippincott.

[…]

Lippincott said the company decided, based on early driving experiences, that the signs were needed.

While everyone knows to take caution behind the wheel, Lippincott said, “there’s nothing wrong with reminding them from time to time.”

Here’s the Facebook post. Wisecracks aside, I would not want to meet up with a 400 pound hog at 85 MPH. TM Daily Post has video of hogs crossing SH 130 at night. It’s just a matter of time before this causes a fatality. I hope it’s not too frequent an occurrence.

The 85 MPH toll road is now open

So far, it seems like the only people on the newly-opened 85 MPH Texas 130 toll road are reporters writing about what it’s like to legally drive that fast.

About an hour after road workers removed the hundreds of bright orange cones blocking the entrances and exits to the new State Highway 130 toll road, I gave the fastest highway in the country a test drive.

From Austin to Seguin, the road has a posted speed limit of 85 mph, a number my speedometer doesn’t reach on a regular basis. On the occasions I have found myself driving that fast, it’s usually been unintentional. I would be moving along on an open stretch of some rural highway, glance down and see the needle higher than I had expected and slightly ease off the gas pedal.

Along with far too many references to a terrible Sammy Hagar song and not enough nods to the best line from Back to the Future, the new toll road has generated a vigorous debate over whether the 85 mph speed limit is just too fast.

A “terrible Sammy Hagar song”? Those are fighting words, my friend. Let’s see if this Chron story is less incendiary.

Within seconds of reaching 85 mph, I hit another milestone without even trying.

90 mph. Just like that.

I didn’t realize how fast 85 mph really is until I started passing everyone else on the road, or when I suddenly had to slow down. There’s not much wiggle room when a car travels those speeds.

[…]

For the next two weeks, drivers can test out the speeds for free. The tolls kick in on Nov. 11; rates will be based on the size of the vehicle, method of payment and how far the vehicle travels.

A Lockhart pastor who wouldn’t give his name because, he said, he didn’t want to make any enemies, described the two-week moratorium on tolls like a pretty woman or an illegal substance. Both lure you in. But a little taste of those high speeds, and you’re hooked:

“It’s gonna be like alcohol,” he said. Soon, you “can’t put that bottle down.”

Caldwell County Precinct 1 Constable Victor “Smitty” Terrell worries about vehicles coming off the toll road to feeder roads with 55 mph speeds.

And don’t get Terrell started on wild hogs and the hazard they pose as they travel in packs. Texas 130 was built in an area where there has been little or no development. That’s meant a lot of wildlife displacement.

He looked at my car and predicted the worst.

“If a couple hundred pound hog went underneath that Honda Civic, and it went on the corner and hit you just right,” he said, “it’d flip you.”

There’s a vivid image for you. Apparently, a couple of hogs have already been hit, but so far no humans have reported injuries as a result.

Finally, for a lighter look at the experience, the Statesman’s Ken Herman tried the new road out in a Smart car.

My car for opening day was a Smart microcar, less than half the length of a Suburban, rented from Car2Go. My dual mission was to be among the first on the nation’s fastest highway and to see whether a Smart could go 85. Perhaps this is a boy thing.

First, some safety notes. Though tiny, the Smart gets pretty good safety ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. There was, however, a 2009 IIHS report noting the Smart and two other microcars were “poor performers in the frontal collisions with midsize cars.”

“These results,” we’re told, “reflect the laws of the physical universe.”

I’m thinking you’re going to pay a hefty hourly rate for a lawyer to get you around those laws.

As you can see, he lived to tell the tale. All three writers report zipping past the 85 MPH mark without realizing they had done so, which isn’t terribly surprising. I suspect that will be a common occurrence. I’d say I’m looking forward to seeing what the accident rate is on this highway, but I’m really not. Anyway, I suspect this road won’t be this empty for long, so take advantage now if you can.