Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

toll roads

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.

Trump’s toll roads

Who wants more toll roads?

Part of president-elect Donald Trump’s promise to create new jobs for Americans relies on a “deficit-neutral plan” to spend $1 trillion on public works projects, including hundreds of billions for roads and rail.

But the strategy could result in something many Texans aren’t going to like: more toll roads.

“Unfortunately that’s the way I’ve read it,” said state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, vice chair of the Texas Senate transportation committee.

There are also fears the plan could provide few new highway projects or road improvements to the state’s vast rural areas. And the lack of details in the proposal has so far made it unclear how Texas’ urban transit agencies could be affected.

Trump’s plan is already getting some opposition from his own party in Washington, D.C. In the Lone Star State, where residents have balked at a growing number of toll projects, state officials from both political parties are hoping the incoming president backs off reliance on the private sector.

“To be direct, it’s a little scary and kind of contrary to where our current leadership in Texas has been going the last couple of years,” said state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who chairs the Texas House transportation committee.

Under the current proposal, the $1 trillion in infrastructure investment would come not from the government, but from private companies who would receive tax incentives for borrowing funds needed for construction costs, according to Trump’s campaign and transition websites and a paper authored by two of his senior advisors.

The private firms who build the roads, though, would expect a revenue stream to cover principal, interest and operating costs. And the most common way to create a revenue stream on a road is to toll it.

“To suggest public-private partnerships and relying on tolls, we’ve already kind of maxed those out,” Pickett said.

Vocal toll road opponent Terri Hall of San Antonio is the executive director of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, a group whose members are contacting Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and asking the transition team to rethink the infrastructure plan.

She said the proposal essentially privatizes the nation’s roadways and opens a door to corruption.

“It reeks of cronyism, which Trump’s campaign promise to ‘drain the swamp’ was supposed to get rid of,” she said.

[…]

Others, though, worry that rural areas will be left behind under the current proposal. Geoff Anderson is the president and CEO of urban planning and development nonprofit Smart Growth America. He said that private firms aren’t likely to view improving access to rural areas or rebuilding aging county roads as financially feasible or worthwhile.

“The projects that address those types of issues seldom have a revenue base,” he said.

Huffines, the Senate transportation committee vice chair, echoed Anderson’s concerns. He also said that toll roads in urban areas will geographically segregate people by income because only those Texans that can afford the added cost will live near such corridors.

“Those that can’t are going to live in those areas where they don’t have to go down toll roads,” Huffines said.

You know we are living in strange times when I find myself agreeing with Don Huffines. The story notes the failure of SH130 as a reminder of what the downside of these schemes are. As for the concerns about corruption and cronyism…yeah, there’s nothing I can say here that doesn’t put my head at risk of exploding. I don’t honestly expect much to come of this because I don’t think Trump has the attention span to push for it, and I know Paul Ryan doesn’t care about infrastructure. But if it gets a bunch of Republicans in Texas all upset, it will have accomplished at least one useful thing.

SH 130 operator to give up its ownership stake

Another step on the road to bankruptcy.

Speed Limit 85

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.

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.

Metro and HCTRA exploring other payment options

Look for them soon.

HoustonMetro

Many transit riders are clamoring for smartphone payment for Metro buses and trains, which the agency originally announced would be ready by the end of 2015. Those plans have been delayed because of contract negotiations, but about 100 riders will be chosen for a test of a smartphone-based payment system in January, according to Denise Wendler, Metro’s chief information officer.

Metro approved a $244,090 contract in June with GlobeSherpa, based in Portland, Ore. The company is developing a smartphone app enabling riders to store single-ride tickets or day passes for use as needed. Riders will show the bus operator or fare inspector their valid ticket, which is designed so it cannot be copied or forged.

Current and potential riders are eager for smartphone options, Metro board members said.

[…]

For the initial March unveiling, Wendler said the smartphone payment system will have the ability to accept and verify Metro’s common $1.25 fare and a $3 day pass option. Smartphone options will come later for those who receive discounts, such as seniors and students, and for park-and-ride fares, she said.

Demand also is expected to surge among commuters, Metro board member Christof Spieler said.

“I would roll out park and ride as fast as possible,” he said.

Metro, after years of encouraging Q card use, has eased up on making the cards the preferred payment source. Though the Q card system is aging and likely to be replaced in a few years, it is still the dominant method of paying for bus and train trips in the area.

I noted the pilot of this a few days ago. I have a Q card, which is paid for by my employer – I suspect there are a lot of people like me – so I’m not exactly itching to try something new. I’m sure that when the time comes, companies that subsidize transit for their employees will find a way to use the new system. For everyone else, I see no reason not to offer more options. Among other things, having a smartphone app for paying would make Metro more accessible to visitors and locals who have a short term need for transit, due to a temporary work assignment or a car that’s in the shop or whatever else. I hope this works out.

Toll agency officials are changing drivers’ payment choices as well. The agency wants to eliminate coin-operated machines and staffed toll booths along many roads, and this month it launched its first EZ TAG option that does not require a credit card.

The new reloadable toll tags, though a partnership with BancPass, are available at the Sam Houston Tollway Ship Channel Bridge toll plaza. They’ll be sold in various retail outlets after the new year, toll road authority spokeswoman Mary Benton said.

Initial purchase of the reloadable EZ TAG costs $40. The “reload kit” includes a transponder for the person’s vehicle, a card to add balance to the toll account and $15 in tolls. As the toll balance diminishes, drivers can add value to the card online or a certain locations around Houston – for now, the Ship Channel Toll Plaza. Each time the card is reloaded, BancPass, the administrator of the accounts, assesses a $2 fee.

Benton said the reloadable card is aimed at attracting people who do not want to give the toll authority credit card information, many of whom use the toll lanes infrequently.

We have EZ tags, and though we don’t use them often (mostly for trips to and from the airport), I don’t foresee that changing. If you’re going to phase out coin machines and staffed toll booths, then you’ve got to have an option for the folks who use them now. It seems a bit complicated, but that’s the tradeoff for using cash.

Would the elevated 610 lanes really reduce congestion?

Color me skeptical.

The elevated lane design, officials said, would allow traffic headed around the loop, and not into the Uptown area, to flow more freely. The lanes would have no access to exits for San Felipe, Westheimer, Richmond or U.S. 59.

Moving that through-traffic to the express lanes would open up space for local traffic on the existing Loop 610 lanes, TxDOT officials said.

The plans have reignited fears about the effects of a double-decker freeway on the area and Memorial Park. Proposals for two tiers of freeway traffic have run into staunch opposition twice in the past 25 years.

Residents and leaders of the Memorial Park Conservancy – a nonprofit that helps protect and manage the park – are taking a close look at the latest proposal. Local landowners and businesses also are monitoring the project, said John Breeding, president of Uptown Houston and administrator of the area’s tax increment reinvestment zone.

“Noise and the visual are the biggest issues,” Breeding said.

[…]

Because of limited space, TxDOT said only one lane to and from the elevated lanes would be practical and help control traffic flow. The absence of a second lane, however, creates a bottleneck where the lanes rejoin the rest of Loop 610.

Others criticized the plan for not having direct access to I-10.

“That’s a big loss,” frequent Loop 610 and I-10 driver Jason Wilkinson said. “Everybody that needs to go downtown, you’ve just made it so they can’t use it.”

TxDOT officials this week extended the deadline for comments from Dec. 28 to Jan. 8, spokesman Danny Perez said.

Though officials have said the lanes may be tolled, recent infusions of cash to transportation funding via voter-approved changes in state budgeting could mean the express lanes stay free.

Pending state and federal approvals, construction could begin in two or three years, provided TxDOT and local officials devise a way to pay for it.

The lanes, estimated to cost $250 million, are not included in regional transportation spending plans approved by the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which doles out much of the state and federal money meant for congestion relief.

See here and here for the background. I guess I just don’t believe this will work. The particulars of getting the people who want to pass through the 59-to-10 part of the West Loop (how many such people are there?) onto and off of the express lane or lanes will cause confusion and likely some backups all on their own. Getting to the I-10 exit on the northbound Loop, and to the 59 exit on the southbound side, will still be a mess. And I say again, ain’t no way this comes in at $250 million. It’s just a question of how much of an underestimate that is. I get why people find this enticing – who wouldn’t like to think that we can reduce traffic on the Loop? – I just don’t buy it. It’s false hope. Sorry.

Elevating the West Loop

I suppose this was inevitable.

Planners on Dec. 10 are scheduled to detail plans for elevated managed lanes along Loop 610, from north of Interstate 10 to U.S. 59. Long constrained by the development and parkland along the freeway, the Texas Department of Transportation project aims to put elevated lanes in the middle of the freeway, within the existing right of way, for 3.7 miles.

The meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at the Junior League of Houston, 1811 Briar Oaks Lane.

[…]

Relieving traffic, especially where drivers enter and exit in the bustling Uptown area and merge to and from U.S. 59, is a huge priority for regional transportation officials.

Drivers, meanwhile, said they’d welcome anything that offers a faster trip.

“Anything over what’s there now would be an improvement,” said Jason Weiss, 29, who drives the Loop to work daily.

Relief, however, will be years in coming. Construction of the lanes, expected to cost $250 million, isn’t expected to start for at least two years. Funding would likely come from tolling the lanes.

I was a little confused at first by the description of “from north of Interstate 10 to U.S. 59”, thinking that maybe they meant this would be along the North Loop, but no: It’s the northern half of the West Loop, from the Southwest Freeway to I-10, exactly where the traffic is the worst. It’s also separate from the Metro HOV plan that is part of the whole Uptown BRT package.

And there’s no freaking way this would cost $250 million. Maybe they mean that’s the out of pocket money for TxDOT, with the rest of it financed by future toll revenues, but come on. Anyone who believes that is the real cost also probably still believes that the Katy Freeway expansion came in under the original $1 billion estimates for it.

Will this help make traffic better? In the sense that it will make cars move faster along this stretch of the Loop, the answer is most likely Yes, at least for awhile. Mostly what it will do is shift the effect of that traffic elsewhere, which will in turn be exacerbated by the higher level of throughput on the West Loop. More vehicles passing through the West Loop per minute and per hour means more vehicles exiting the West Loop per minute and per day onto 59 and I-10 and surface roads like Westheimer and San Felipe. None of those roads are going to have any extra capacity, so what do you think will be the end result? This is basically the same as the effect of the Katy Freeway widening on I-10 between 610 and I-45, which is why it is so much busier these days, and why the streets that connect to it, like Studewood and Yale and Shepherd, are also so much busier. If you’ll be just passing through, it ought to make for a more pleasant experience. But sooner or later you’re going to exit, and that’s when it will catch up to you.

Why that empty private toll road has been so empty

Someone did a study to try to answer that question.

Speed Limit 85

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.

Now how much would you pay to drive on that toll road?

How about ten bucks each way at peak times, beginning on May 30?

Toll rates on the I-10 lanes, also known as the Katy Managed Lanes, will increase as officials seek to ease congestion by reducing use of the lanes during peak hours through a process called congestion pricing. The rates will go up by as much as $1.20 at each of the three tolling points along the 12-mile route. The price of a complete trip will jump from $7 to $10 at peak commuting times.

Officials said the increase was necessary to reduce congestion and to encourage people to find alternatives to driving.

“This is the only tool we have to manage the congestion on the lanes,” said Lisa Castaneda, deputy director of the Harris County Toll Road Authority.

[…]

The goal is to have 1,800 to 2,000 vehicles use the HOV lane and the same number use the toll lane each hour. Prices are set to achieve that.

Castaneda said at the current rate of $3.20 at Eldridge and $1.90 at Wilcrest and Wirt during peak commutes, about 20 percent more vehicles are using the lanes than optimal. More people will choose alternatives such as public transportation or a car pool if tolls are higher, officials said.

[…]

Setting prices to create incentives for using transit is common in other major metro areas struggling with traffic. Tunnels and bridges in many places have extremely high rates based on huge demand. The George Washington Bridge and Lincoln and Holland tunnels in New York cost $13 one-way for access to Manhattan.

It might not match New York demand, but traffic is choking I-10, despite a $2 billion widening project that made the freeway the nation’s widest – 26 lanes when local frontage roads are included. At the spot where the HOV and toll lanes end near Post Oak, more than 338,000 vehicles use the freeway each day, according to 2013 Texas Department of Transportation figures.

“The only tool we have been using is to pour more concrete,” Castaneda said.

In 2003, before the widening work began, about 215,000 vehicles used the freeway outside Loop 610, according to TxDOT figures.

Further relief along the route is likely to come from people choosing other options, something Castaneda said the toll increase was meant to encourage.

I’d been wondering how traffic today compares to traffic pre-widening. Look at it this way: There were four outbound lanes on I-10 from 610 in 2003, three free lanes plus one HOV lane. It’s a little harder to get a handle on it now because lanes come and go, but it’s something like five plus the two toll/HOV lanes. That means in 2003, there were 54,000 vehicles per lane, and today it’s 48,000. All that for $2.8 billion. Did we get our money’s worth or what? And remember, all those extra cars are helping to clog up the Loop and I-10 inside the Loop and I-45, not to mention the surface streets that connect to I-10. I know, the growth in the area meant a lot of that traffic was coming whether we widened I-10 or not, but as people were arguing at the time, we could have done things differently to allow for some of those “other options” – commuter rail, more park and ride lots, who knows what else. But we poured a bunch of concrete, and now a decade later we’re right where we were before we expanded I-10, with far fewer options going forward. What we do now, I don’t know. But maybe this time more people will listen when we say we need options beyond more concrete. The Highwayman has more.

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.

Speed Limit 85

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.

So what is the capacity of the Katy Freeway these days?

This story was about the increase in the toll on the managed lanes of the Katy Freeway, but there was a tidbit at the end that caught my eye.

600px-i-10

When officials started widening the freeway in 2003, at an eventual cost of $2.8 billion, their goal was to ease congestion in one of the area’s most clogged corridors.

The freeway then had 11 lanes and was carrying more than 2.5 times its capacity of 79,000 vehicles per day. Now with 20 lanes in some spots to flow traffic – including the managed lanes and frontage roads – the freeway can handle more vehicles, but demand is increasing as well.

In 2003, the average daily traffic count along I-10 at Wirt Road was 202,500, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. By 2011, the last year for which verified counts are available, the average traffic at Wirt was 274,600, a 35 percent increase.

[…]

Yet the freeway still isn’t as congested as it was prior to the widening, said Alan Clark, manager of transportation air quality programs for the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

“It is still vastly better than it was before,” Clark said. “Particularly it is easier to handle incidents. If there was an accident or problem on the freeway before the widening, the whole thing practically shut down.”

So the pre-expansion capacity of the Katy Freeway was 79,000 vehicles per day, and they basically doubled the number of lanes, what is the capacity today? I don’t know if you’d simply double that 79,000 per day figure, or if the math is more complicated than that. It sure would have had to go up quite a bit – like, almost four times as much – to stay ahead of that 274,000 vehicles per day average we’re seeing now. To say the least, I have my doubts about that. I sent an email to Chron reporter Dug Begley to ask about this, but he never replied. My point here is that way back when this expansion was still a twinkle in John Culberson’s eye, critics of the expansion were predicting that traffic levels would quickly rise to fill the extra capacity that was being built. Sure looks to me like they were right. No question, I-10 needed to be expanded, but where do we go from here? The design of the widened I-10 left no room for rail, further widening seems unlikely, and going up with a second deck or down with a tunnel would seem to be prohibitively expensive. Denser development with more and better transit is starting to look pretty good, isn’t it? Maybe we’ll have better luck with that next time.

City and county make a deal on airport toll road revenues

Good.

HCTRA

After two years of negotiations, the Houston City Council approved an agreement Wednesday that provides toll revenue from the airport connector to the city for the first time – 24.5 percent, to be precise.

Officials at Harris County, which has collected all revenue on the segment since it opened in January 2000, said it only made sense to play nice. County leaders have called parts of the original 1997 city-county agreement governing construction, maintenance and tolls “puzzling” and “bizarre.”

The city expects to collect about $1 million annually under the revised agreement, which still must be approved by the county Commissioners Court.

“We do have a better working relationship than we’ve ever had,” Mayor Annise Parker said. “Every so often governments can sit down and say ‘We wrote this in the contract, but we can do something better.’ ”

In a 2011 letter to the county proposing the two sides split toll revenues on the connector, Houston Airport System Director Mario Diaz noted the city contributed 43 percent of the $31.7 million construction cost and maintains a roughly 1.3-mile stretch of the road on airport property. Diaz also discussed the 1997 agreement, which authorized the city to collect toll revenues only if it built its own toll plaza – which could have resulted in redundant facilities or in the dismantling of the county’s existing plaza.

“That would just border on the line of pure stupidity to tear down a perfectly good plaza and build another one,” Commissioner Steve Radack said. “If the city’s happy with this and the toll road authority’s happy with it and they recommend it, I don’t have a problem with it.”

See here for the background. You will note that at the time, Steve Radack did have a problem with this idea. The fact that he is on board with this plan is a clear sign that city-county relations are at the highest point they’ve been in recent memory. Or possibly a sign of the impending apocalypse. Either way, kudos all around.

Opposition gearing up for the water fund amendment

The legislation to create a state water infrastructure fund, and the joint resolution that authorized tapping the Rainy Day Fund for up to $2 billion to seed it, had a rocky road in the legislature and wasn’t completed until the last weekend of the regular session. Now the task is to pass the constitutional amendment that the joint resolution enabled on the ballot, and that’s no sure thing, either.

If ratified in the Nov. 5 election, the proposed constitutional amendment would create a state water development bank that supporters say is vital to help Texas avert a worsening water shortage over the next half-century.

The unfolding campaign appears almost certain to match the contours of the legislative debate, balancing the need to keep Texas economically vibrant with a robust water supply against Tea Party-fueled opposition over spending rainy-day money on the multibillion-dollar program.

Nine other amendments are heading to the state’s 13 million-plus voters, but Senate Joint Resolution 1 is easily the farthest-reaching. Senate Natural Resources Chairman Troy Fraser, a chief proponent, said he hopes to muster “an army of people” into the campaign to push the measure to victory.

The effort is expected to include much of the state’s political leadership, including Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

H204Texas, a coalition that includes chambers of commerce, energy companies, water suppliers and other interests, has already started mapping out a political-style campaign that includes fundraising, media buys, op-ed pieces and elaborate use of social media.

“We’re already in full force,” said Heather Harward, the coalition’s executive director.

[…]

But opposition is also taking shape as an array of conservative groups — including Tea Party and citizens lobby organizations — work their formidable email networks to point up what they say are a number of reasons why the initiative should be defeated.

Recycling a major element from the legislative debate, opponents have begun to denounce the proposed use of $2 billion in state rainy-day funds, which lawmakers approved in a separate appropriations bill to capitalize the proposed bank.

Opponents say that putting the $2 billion into a constitutionally dedicated fund enables supporters to avoid having the money count against a state spending cap, which conservatives both in and out of the Legislature have vowed to protect vigorously.

“We’re going to have to oppose it,” said JoAnn Fleming of Tyler, executive director of Grassroots America, which she said networks with more than 300 Tea Party and liberty organizations.

Fleming said members of her organization and related groups plan to work through summer and fall in a “good old-fashioned grassroots effort” to drum up votes against the initiative. “We’ve been successful with that in the past,” she said.

One influential conservative group, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, came out against the proposal during the just-ended regular legislative session, but group President Michael Quinn Sullivan said in an email that “it’s premature to speculate on what we may or may not be doing in the fall on constitutional amendments.”

“A great many conservative groups opposed SJR1 in the legislature,” said Sullivan, who is president of Empower Texans and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. “We know a lot of folks are going to be talking about it in the fall. If or when we decide to engage in that issue, we’ll engage.”

Chuck Molyneaux of McKinney, 73, a retired software developer who heads the North Texas Citizens Lobby, said his organization is reaching out to its allies in the Tea Party community to oppose the measure and the proposed use of rainy-day funds.

“We’re going to do our best to keep it from being passed,” he said. “This one just reeks of smoke and mirrors.”

I’ll save the debate about the merits of the amendment for another day. I just want to point out that historically speaking, the vast majority of amendments that get put on the ballot do get passed. However, three of the five that were defeated in the past decade went down in 2011. Here’s a brief recap of how this voting has gone:

2011 – 7/10 passed
2009 – 11/11 passed
2007 – 16/16 passed
2005 – 7/9 passed
2003 – 22/22 passed

There are two interesting things about the 2011 election. One is that the referenda that failed were not exactly high profile or had any apparent opposition going into the election. Here’s the ballot statement of the five amendments in 2011 and 2005 that were rejected, first from 2011:

Prop 4 Permit county to issue bonds for development, 40.26 to 59.73
Prop 7 Permit El Paso County to create reclamation districts, 48.29 to 51.50
Prop 8 Appraisal for ad valorem tax of land devoted to water stewardship, 47.00 to 52.99

And from 2005:

Prop. 5 Commercial loan interest rates defined by Legislature, 43.41 to 56.48
Prop. 9 Six-Year term for regional mobility authority, 46.67 to 53.32

Unlike 2005, the year of the Double Secret Illegal Anti-Gay Marriage amendment, there wasn’t anything particularly high profile in 2011, though Prop 4 was opposed by various anti-toll road groups. I have no memory of the defeated issues from 2005. The other thing about the 2011 election was that it had the lowest turnout of any referendum on this list:

2011 Turnout – 690,052
2009 Turnout – 1,058,986
2007 Turnout – 1,096,410
2005 Turnout – 2,260,695
2003 Turnout – 1,470,443

That might have had something to do with it, though recall that the 2003 election, which included the medical malpractice tort “reform” referendum was held in September (back when there was still a uniform election date in September) for the deliberate purpose of keeping turnout low, which supporters of tort “reform” assumed would be better for their cause. They didn’t want to be on the same ballot as the high-turnout Houston Mayoral election that year. It’s not clear to me whether turnout will be a factor one way or the other for SJR1, but on the whole the lower the turnout the greater the influence of the more motivated voters, and I’d put my money on the antis being more motivated at this time. So keep an eye on that. EoW has more.

Building speculative privatized toll roads is risky business

Just ask the Texas 130 investors.

Speed Limit 85

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.

290 toll lane opens

You solo drivers on US 290 can now take advantage of the HOV lane to make your daily commute a little less grim, beginning today.

Based on time of day, drivers will pay between $1 and $5 for using the lanes, while eligible carpoolers can still use them for free. In the mornings, vehicles must have three occupants between 6:45 a.m. and 8 a.m., while only two people per vehicle are required at other times.

The carpool lanes run from near FM 1960 to the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10 and Loop 610. The transit center, park and ride buses and the carpool lanes are operated by Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Metro also manages toll lanes along Interstate 45 and U.S. 59. Carpool lanes along 59 north of downtown are scheduled to open later this year.

About 7,500 vehicles use the carpool lane daily along 290, Metro officials said. Adding solo drivers who pay is expected to increase the use to about 9,000 vehicles. Raising and lowering prices is meant to control use.

See here for some background, and here for more on Metro’s HOV/HOT lane service. Doesn’t sound like it’s enough volume to make much of a dent in the daily commute time for most folks, but I suppose if you’re one of the ones paying for the privilege of driving in the HOV lane it’ll make a difference for you. It’s going to be a long couple of years while 290 gets revamped and expanded, and I hardly ever have to drive on it.

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.

There’s no such thing as a free road

I have an issue with this.

Texas’ boom of toll roads has made the “free” part of freeway mean something different lately.

As toll lanes become the preferred choice for adding capacity to Texas roads, a growing number of state lawmakers and toll critics are looking for assurances that state-built freeways will stay open to everyone. Coming up with a precise set of rules, however, is proving trickier than expected.

“I believe free roads should remain free,” Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, told the Senate Transportation Committee last week.

Campbell is working with Texas Department of Transportation officials to craft a more detailed version of SB 1029, her bill to prohibit existing state roads from conversion to toll lanes. A similar bill by Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday before the House Transportation Committee.

Last week, TxDOT officials expressed concern that Campbell’s bill could have unintended consequences and curtail upcoming toll lane construction.

[…]

Without an outright ban, critics worry TxDOT will take roads away from motorists, said Terri Hall, founder of San Antonio-based Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, an anti-tax and anti-toll group. She called efforts to toll U.S. 281 north of the metro area “truly highway robbery.”

TxDOT officials stressed that none of their plans include converting free lanes to tolls. Major projects TxDOT has tackled in the past five years mostly were funded by borrowing, state officials said.

Using the paths already carved by freeways makes sense, toll proponents said, especially in places already suffering from heavy congestion.

“The most effective means of addressing that congestion is to add capacity within those corridors,” said C. Brian Cassidy, a lawyer with Locke Lord LLP in Austin, who focuses on transportation and infrastructure law.

“Tolls are not taxes,” Cassidy said. “Tolls present a choice and, more importantly, they present an option to fund and deliver projects.”

Here’s SB1029. I agree with the argument that roads that were built with public funds and which are currently not tolled should remain toll-free. I also agree that there should be some legal safeguards to ensure that public, toll-free roads are properly maintained and not neglected as as way to enable toll roads, especially toll roads built in part or in whole with private capital, to meet revenue targets. But if we’re going to put restrictions on TxDOT and other road-building agencies, we should at least be honest with ourselves as to why toll roads are all the rage these days. You know where I’m going with this – the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised in 20 years and is unable to provide sufficient revenue for Texas’ transportation needs. To his credit, Sen. Kevin Eltife has touted a gas tax hike and inflation index to help deal with this. I don’t share Sen. Eltife’s obsession with debt, and I strongly oppose a sales tax increase as a way of dealing with TxDOT’s bond load, but at least Eltife recognizes the problem and is willing to talk about solutions. (Sen. John Carona has also supported increasing and indexing the gas tax.) I’m willing to support Sen. Campbell’s effort here, but she needs to be willing to acknowledge that you get what you pay for, roads included.

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.

The 288-to-the-Medical-Center connector takes a step forward

I still have a bad feeling about this.

In a first step toward providing relief, transportation officials will spend the year winnowing six possible locations for reversible toll lanes that would provide a direct connection between the sprawling medical campus and Texas 288. They hope to start construction in 2014.

Texas 288 between U.S. 59 and Interstate 610 is the 25th-most-congested freeway in Texas, according to a Texas Department of Transportation analysis. And not all the blame can be assigned to Texans games at nearby Reliant Stadium or to tourists looking for the Astrodome.

“A significant number of motorists traveling along 288 between downtown and Brazoria County are traveling to the Medical Center,” said TxDOT spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis. The center includes more than four dozen medical institutions, employs about 100,000 people and has nearly 7,000 hospital beds.

Reversible ramps would allow traffic to flow faster in and out of the area during peak commuting times, Lewis said. The ramps would complement a larger project to add toll lanes on Texas 288 from U.S. 59 to Brazoria County.

Residents have until Feb. 22 to comment on the project to add a ramp connecting the freeway and the Medical Center south or east of Hermann Park. Plans call for a roughly $12 million flyover linking Texas 288 and a street around the center.

In addition to the freeway improvements, Houston plans to add one lane in each direction to Almeda Road between South MacGregor Way and Old Spanish Trail. Transit and pedestrian improvements also are planned for Main Street.

I’ve expressed my concerns before, and I don’t really have much to add to that. At best, I think this will mostly move some congestion from the highway to the connectors and the surface roads. It still won’t do anything about the backup at 59, which is what causes most of the delay on 288 as you head north past 610. Ultimately, the only solution to to the problem of too many cars trying to park in a limited area is to reduce the number of cars trying to park, which is to say to provide viable non-car alternatives. I have no idea what, if anything, is currently on the drawing board for that.

UPDATE: The Chron editorializes on the subject.

“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.

It was nice knowing you, Lockhart

There’s so much that’s wrong with this.

Image courtesy bbqfilm.com

Community leaders believe the four lanes of Texas 130 will spur growth — despite what is expected to be a charge of about 15 cents a mile to drive on it. The tollway, which will link Lockhart to Austin to the north and will provide a much faster route to San Antonio to the south, has drawn the attention of a handful of developers, but no dirt has turned yet.

“We can only imagine what fruits it will bear for Caldwell County,” County Judge Tom Bonn told the crowd at the summit. “We are ready for industry. We are ready for development. We are ready for jobs.”

But as shown by the short history of the existing 49 miles of Texas 130, which loops east of Round Rock and Austin and opened in sections between 2006 and 2008, the presence of a tollway does not guarantee instant development. Drive that road today and, aside from concentrations of housing and retail in Hutto and Pflugerville and the nearly finished Formula One racetrack, most of the road is flanked by empty land.

And those two communities, given their proximity to Round Rock and the thousands of Dell Inc. jobs, were already booming before Texas 130 and nearby tollways Texas 45 North and Loop 1 opened. Caldwell County, at least at this point, has no such employment base. Not yet, anyway.

Caldwell County Commissioner John Cyrier, who runs an Austin commercial construction company, said bringing that first big employer to the county is the key. An 85 mph tollway could help with that, officials say.

“We’re trying to attract a business,” Cyrier said. “Then the rooftops will come, and the retail. We’re hoping for at least 10,000 rooftops.”

Those rooftops, of course, would come with people, and traffic, and all sorts of change. Lockhart, at least compared with the astonishing growth of other towns ringing Austin, has been a tranquil island of stability. Its population grew just 9 percent between 2000 and 2010, to about 12,700. And the biggest reason to visit Lockhart remains its brisket, ribs and sausage.

“I think people are very optimistic about it,” Cyrier said of the expected growth. “They’re wanting the quality of life, and the jobs to come. They’re tired of their grandkids going away.

“I’ve been very surprised with it. I thought maybe people would be upset with it, fighting it.”

Jeff Gibeaux, a civil engineer and downtown Lockhart developer who has lived in the city for 20 years, said the more dominant reaction among locals is skepticism that significant change is on the way. After all, Lockhart is about the same distance from downtown Austin as Hutto, Georgetown, Leander and Bastrop, yet unlike those towns has never taken off as a bedroom community.

Which is precisely why, Gibeaux argues, that with Texas 130 in place, his town and Caldwell County probably are about to boom.

“As I tell people, it’s the last piece of pie in the dish,” Gibeaux said. “You can’t go anywhere else” with development.

It’s sprawl in its embryonic form. I understand why Lockhart wants to grow – many small, rural towns have been steadily losing population to the cities and suburbs – but boy is it hard for me to see how being a 40-mile commute on a toll road will bring the masses in. Maybe that’s just me, though. Of course, you can go elsewhere with development, just not this kind of development. That’s more of a subject for places like Austin and San Antonio to address, however. I’m dubious about all this, but check back in 20 years and we’ll see who’s right.

On a side note, the way this toll road came to have an 85 MPH speed limit was dodgy.

Before construction on the toll road stretch began, U.S. Highway 183 in the county was a four-lane road. The road had a posted speed limit of 65 mph and a reputation for accidents. Now U.S. 183 will serve as the frontage roads to the new toll road with two one-way lanes on each side. Though it’s widely considered safer than the older road, TxDOT has set the speed limit for the new U.S. 183 through Caldwell County at 55 mph.

The news of the lower speed limit designation for U.S. 183 has been “the talk of the town,” said Caldwell County Judge Tom Bonn. For three years, local residents had patiently put up with lower speed limits because of construction and had assumed that the 65 mph limit would return once the project was completed, Bonn said. He believes that the speed limit was set at 55 mph to encourage drivers to use the toll road.

Furthering suspicion is a report by the Austin American-Statesman noting that the speed limit was chosen based on a trial run conducted last year by an engineer hired by the SH 130 Concession Company. TxDOT declined to comment on why a TxDOT engineer did not perform the test.

Chris Lippincott, a SH 130 Concession Company spokesman, said a lower speed limit is prudent considering the economic development that the toll road will draw to the frontage roads.

“Whataburger and Home Depot do not want their customers pulling out of their driveways onto a 65 mph racetrack,” Lippincott said. “When you look at frontage roads with high speeds, you tend to find limited growth and too many wrecks.”

Local elected officials are skeptical. Both the Caldwell County Commissioners and the Lockhart City Council have passed resolutions calling on TxDOT to return the U.S. 183 speed limit to 65 mph and offer a discounted toll rate for Caldwell County residents that have to commute to jobs in Travis County. Members of the Legislature are also hearing complaints about it.

“I think public opinion is going to change it,” Bonn said. “It’s a bad decision.”

The profit motive sure does skew these public infrastructure projects, doesn’t it?

85 MPH speed limit officially approved

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.

The Texas Department of Transportation has approved an 85 mph speed limit for an upcoming 40-mile stretch of Texas 130 from Austin to Seguin. Currently, no road in the country has a posted speed limit faster than 80 mph. An 85 mph designation would give the new toll road the fastest speed limit in the Western Hemisphere, according to some reports.

In 2011, the Legislature gave TxDOT the authority to grant an 85 mph speed limit to roads designed to accommodate that speed. Last week, following engineering and traffic studies conducted by TxDOT, the Transportation Commission authorized speed limits of up to 85 mph on the road.

The new stretch of Texas 130 (known officially as Segments 5 and 6) is being built by a private consortium led by Spanish-based toll road firm Cintra. The firm has spent $1.3 billion to design and build the road and collect the tolls on the road for 50 years, though TxDOT retains ownership of the road. Under TxDOT’s contract with the SH 130 Concession Company, the firm had to pay TxDOT an extra $67 million if the new road received an 80 mph speed limit. If the road received the coveted 85 mph speed limit, TxDOT’s bonus jumped to $100 million.

Wait, so by approving this higher speed limit TxDOT also approved a $100 million bonus for itself? Sweet. The road is officially scheduled to open November 11, but may actually do so sooner than that. See here for more.

Toll hike

I have three things to say about this.

Starting in September, that jaunt on a Harris County toll road might save you time, but it won’t spare your change.

Unless Commissioners Court intervenes, rates at main-lane toll plazas on the Sam Houston, Westpark Tollway, Hardy Toll Road and the one toll booth on the Fort Bend Parkway inside Harris County are scheduled to increase Sept. 8 from $1.30 to $1.40 for EZ Tag users and from $1.50 to $1.75 for cash customers.

Rates would jump from $4 to $5 during peak hours on the Katy Managed Lanes. Westbound peak hours are scheduled to shift one hour earlier, to run from to 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Off-peak rates on the Katy managed lanes would not change, nor would rates on the Ship Channel bridge.

[…]

Harris County Toll Road Authority Director Peter Key explained the need for the increase by pointing to the $1.9 billion his agency plans to spend on capital projects through 2020.

“We feel like we have a compelling argument to make that, for the region’s continued prosperity, there have to be funds available to fund regional infrastructure improvements,” Key said. “The county toll road system happens to be one of the entities that’s still solvent to be able to do that.”

[…]

County Judge Ed Emmett said he supports the increase, noting that the county will be able to improve mobility at a time when the Texas Department of Transportation is hamstrung by insufficient gas-tax revenues.

“Like it or not, there’s no highway fairy in the sky that’s going to pay to build new roads or maintain the roads that we have,” Emmett said. “This is just keeping up with inflation, and it allows us to continue expanding the toll road system.”

1. I’m glad I don’t have a daily routine that requires the use of toll roads.

2. Despite Judge Emmett’s comment, it doesn’t actually take a magic highway fairy to pay for the kind of transportation infrastructure the state of Texas needs. It just takes a Legislature and a Governor that recognize the need for it and the willingness to index the gas tax to inflation. Having said that, I must admit that a magic highway fairy is the more believable option.

3. It sure would be nice if Metro could get the resources it needs for the capital projects it has planned this easily, wouldn’t it?

More on the 288 to Medical Center connector

The more I hear about this idea, the worse it sounds.

A proposal to build a highway connector between Texas 288 and the Texas Medical Center via North MacGregor Way has drawn criticism.

Among those opposed to the flyover is the Hermann Park Conservancy, which says the elevated connector would leave Hermann Park’s new trail system in the shadow of a freeway.

“Horrible,” conservancy director Doreen Stoller said in summing up the proposal.

Among other issues, Stoller said in a written statement, the flyover would take land from the park for non-park purposes, would increase traffic and noise pollution, would cause congestion at one of the park’s major entrances and would diminish the effect of a recent $100 million park upgrade.

The $12.1 million flyover is part of a project to add toll lanes to the highway that serves as a major route between the Pearland area and downtown Houston.

As I said when I first heard about this, whatever this may do to relieve congestion outside 610, it won’t do a thing to relieve it as 288 merges into I-45 and US 59. I would also argue that it won’t do much to actually relieve congestion on the way into the Medical Center. It will mostly relocate it, from the surface streets to this flyover, which will still ultimately have to connect up with the surface streets and the Medical Center parking lots. I’m really not convinced that this thing will do any good, and that’s before you factor in the damage this design proposal could do to Hermann Park. Some years ago there was an idea that got floated to build a connector from I-10 to US 59 parallel to the West Loop, roughly running along where Weslayan is. This of course would have cut through Memorial Park, which helped to make the idea a non-starter. I hope this idea meets the same fate.

Tomorrow’s traffic jams are being planned today

I have two things to say about this.

Projects to widen U.S. 290 and Texas 288 with a mix of free and toll lanes in an attempt to ease congestion in the traffic-choked corridors would get a jump-start under a proposed agreement between Harris County and the Texas Department of Transportation.

The deal, scheduled for a vote by Commissioners Court [today], also foresees the state building a direct connection from Texas 288 to the Texas Medical Center, as well as improving nearby Almeda and Cullen.

TxDOT spokesman Bob Kaufman said work on U.S. 290 could start early next year; he declined to say when dirt could turn on Texas 288, but said environmental work is under way.

[…]

The proposal envisions a free lane being added in each direction on U.S. 290 between the 610 Loop and the Grand Parkway, and two to three managed lanes in the center. There is disagreement about which directions those lanes should flow at what times. The plan for Texas 288, according to the agreement, would see two toll lanes added from U.S. 59 to near the Brazoria County line. TxDOT’s Kaufman said it is too early to discuss details on either project.

Alan Clark, head of transportation planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, said the agreement puts long hoped-for improvements “within striking distance.” Both stretches of U.S. 290 and Texas 288 are among TxDOT’s 100 most-congested road segments.

[…]

Citizens Transportation Coalition board chairwoman Marci Perry and advocacy chairwoman Carol Caul said they support improvements to the congested section of U.S. 290 inside Highway 6, but said population statistics do not support such an investment much beyond that point.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, whose district is home to a large section of U.S. 290, said there is no question that both projects are needed.

“If we want to continue the economic growth and the prosperity that we have, we have to address mobility,” Cagle said. “If this agreement is signed, it’ll be a signal to everyone, not just within our region but … to the entire nation, that ‘Houston is ready to do business – come on down.’ ”

1. I don’t think there’s any question that the return on investment for the 290 expansion is much greater for the 610 to SH6 section of the highway than it is for the rest of the way out. This is about justifying the ridiculous amount that TxDOT and the county will be spending on the Grand Parkway extension north from I-10. It’s also another example of how much we favor spending on transportation projects where there aren’t any people yet over those where there are. To some extent that makes sense – you do have to plan for growth – but to a much larger extent it’s about politics rather than need. The County Commissioners care a lot more about some parts of the county than they do about some other parts of it. And remember, “planning” inside an established population center hinders growth, while “planning” outside existing population centers facilitates it.

2. My experience on 288 is almost exclusively the stretch of 288 between 610 and 59. Whatever this plan may do to alleviate congestion on 288 outside 610, I can assure you it will exacerbate it inside 610. Take 288 north any afternoon, and I can guarantee that it will be backed up starting around MacGregor all the way up to 59. This is because that stretch of 59, which stretches back to at least Greenbriar, is hopelessly congested all the way through I-10. What do you think the effect of bringing in more people on 288 will be? As for having a direct connection from 288 to the Medical Center, all I can say is that “the Medical Center” is a huge place, with components along Old Spanish Trail, Holcombe, and Fannin. Where exactly would this “direct connection” go? What path would it take? How will you avoid massive congestion at its terminus? Perhaps those aren’t TxDOT or HCTRA’s concerns, but as someone who currently works near the Medical Center, they sure as heck are mine.

First Metro HOV toll lane opens tomorrow

Enjoy your new option, Gulf Freeway commuters.

I-45 HOV toll lane

Metro is set to debut its first high-occupancy toll lanes on the Gulf Freeway between Dixie Farm Road and Dowling Street on Monday.

This arrangement allows solo drivers to use high-occupancy vehicle, or HOV, lanes for a price at certain times of the day. Tolls vary between $1 and $4.50 by a set schedule.

The so-called HOT lanes will be unavailable during heavy traffic times, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said.

For the Gulf Freeway corridor, the inbound HOV will be closed to solo drivers from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. For the afternoon rush, the same restriction will apply to the outbound HOV from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

See here for some background, and here for the full map and schedules. I hope Metro makes a nice little bit of money from this.

Tomball toll road

They want a toll road in Tomball, and they’re probably going to get it.

The Harris County Toll Road Authority is asking that it be allowed to look at State Highway 249, also known as Tomball Parkway, to see whether it would be make sense to build a toll road from Spring-Cypress Road about 10 miles north, to near Farm-to-Market 1774. Toll roads officials stress that the study is preliminary and no end point has been determined.

“You’ve got a populated area that’s growing that needs more mobility,” said Peter Key, executive director of the toll road authority. “We’re taking those first steps to try to find something that’s feasible.”

[…]

“The people out in Tomball really want that to occur,” said County Judge Ed Emmett, a former transportation consultant. “Everybody I talk to says it’s almost a no-brainer that it’s a financially good thing to do.”

John Fishero, a vice president at Lone Star College-Tomball and chairman of the 249 Coalition, a nascent group advocating for growth along the road from Beltway 8 to Navasota, agreed.

Morning radio traffic reports, Fishero said, often cite 45-minute drive times on 20-mile stretches of the North and Eastex freeways. The commute on 249, he said, often is pegged at 30 minutes for a stretch of road one fourth as long.

“They’re talking about Spring Cypress to Beltway 8, and that’s only about 6 miles,” Fishero said. “People are sitting there going nowhere. Getting the flow of traffic away from the stop lights and stop signs between Spring-Cypress and Magnolia will definitely help.”

I’m sure it will be better than it is now, but I wouldn’t bet on it being a long term solution. In fact, I’d bet it’s congested from the day it opens, whenever that is. Not really my concern, at least as long as it’s financed with revenues from the tolls on that road, but reading this story made me wonder about other options. There has been talk about commuter rail along the 249 corridor – see, for example this post by Tory Gattis from 2008 – but I haven’t heard much about it lately. Here’s a Chron story from 2009 in which the idea is floated to the local poobahs in Tomball.

John Fishero, the Greater Tomball Area Chamber’s mobility and transportation committee chairman, said the committee was formed to investigate the results of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s “Regional Commuter Rail Connectivity Study,” which was released in summer 2008.

The study pinpointed five existing railroad corridors that could form the “baseline system” for a commuter rail network in the Houston-Galveston region: U.S. 290 (UPRR’s Eureka line), Texas 249 to Tomball (Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s Houston line), Texas 3 (UPRR’s Galveston line), South Fort Bend/FM 521 (BNSF’s Galveston/Popp corridor line), and the Texas 35 Tollway corridor to Pearland (near UPRR’s Mykawa line).

Fishero said several groups on the U.S. 290 corridor formed a coalition several years ago to lobby for commuter rail service from downtown to College Station. That group has the attention of Harris County and several other agencies that could help fund, implement and manage commuter rail projects, Fishero said.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he would like to see commuter rail projects on the U.S. 290 and Texas 3 rail corridors in the next three years.

“Our concern is that we need to get our hat in the ring one way or another,” Fishero said. “If we want to get something done, we need to start working on funding for our own projects.”

Like I said, I haven’t heard much since. We’re still kicking around commuter rail on the corridors Judge Emmett mentioned, so like the toll road I presume this is still something for the future. My understanding from inquiring with Judge Emmett’s office about this is that it is still being actively considered, but there needs to be a way to tie it in with a transit center of some type on the northwest side so you are not just dumping off commuters with no way to get to wherever they’re going. This is the same basic concern that a commuter or passenger rail line along 290 would have, so when that issue gets resolved then there can be further progress made on a 249/Tomball line. And if we ever do get to that point, we could take it to the next step and extend the line out to College Station as a high speed rail link, as neoHouston documented. Just something else to think about as we go along. Houston Tomorrow has more.

Here come the HOT lanes

Metro's HOV system

Those of you who commute from the ‘burbs into the central core will have new options for how to get there, if you don’t mind spending a few bucks.

Solo drivers willing to pay extra to breeze through heavy traffic could get their chance soon, with Metro expected to start opening its high-occupancy toll lanes early this year.

Metro officials had previously projected a January start to the high-occupancy toll lanes but now say they don’t have a specific date, agency spokesman Jerome Gray said Friday by email.

“We are undergoing final testing of the infrastructure,” Gray said. “In addition, we are completing the integration of the toll processing with HCTRA (Harris County Toll Road Authority). Once that is complete we should be ready to go.”

The Metro board approved this change in November. There have been HOT lanes on the Katy Freeway since 2009 – they call them managed lanes, but it’s the same thing with lower tolls. The thing I’ve always wondered about is how they know whom to toll, and whom to ticket if they’ve neither a tag or enough passengers.

Metro’s tolls will apply only to drivers with no passengers who opt to use the HOV lanes for a price. Single-occupant vehicles will enter the lane through a designated path that allows tolling.

Vehicles with at least two occupants will not be charged a toll.

Booth attendants will monitor the number of passengers in vehicles entering the HOT lanes, and Metro police will patrol the lanes.

Violators who evade the toll will be assessed a $75 fine, while “occupancy violators” (solo drivers who use the lanes when they are designated for HOV use only) will be issued a citation requiring a court appearance.

More on that is here. Maybe it works simpler than it sounds. Anyone have experience with the Katy lanes? Hair Balls has more.

Election results elsewhere

Results of interest from elsewhere in Texas and the country…

– Three of the ten Constitutional amendments were defeated, with Prop 4 losing by nearly 20 points. It drew strong opposition from anti-toll road activists, and I daresay that was the reason for the lopsided loss. The other two, Props 7 and 8, were pretty innocuous, and I have no real idea for why they went down.

– There was one special legislative election, to replace Fred Brown in HD14. Republicans Bob Yancey and John Raney will advance to the runoff for that seat.

– In New Braunfels, the can ban was upheld, and it wasn’t close.

The container ban ordinance, which goes into effect Jan. 1, was approved by 58 percent of the vote.

Ban supporters hailed the win as vindication of their claim that residents want the river protected from rowdy tourists and their litter.

“This was a landslide that can be disputed by no one,” said Kathleen Krueger, spokeswoman for Support The Ban. “New Braunfels has spoken loud and clear that we want to protect our rivers for the next generation.”

The lead spokesman for the opposition said the real issue was government transparency and vowed to continue the fight.

“I’m not disappointed,” said Mark McGonigal. “I have an opinion and so do other people. I knew one side would prevail. But the legality of this has yet to be determined.”

A lawsuit challenging the ordinance as illegal under state law, filed by a group of local business owners, is pending in state district court.

Nearly 9000 votes were cast in that referendum.

– Elsewhere in the country, there were a number of good results for progressives. Voters in Maine restored same day registration, while voters in Ohio repealed a law that would have curtailed collective bargaining rights. Each was a defeat for the state’s elected-in-the-2010-landslide Republican Governor. Mississippi voters rejected a radical “personhood amendment” that could have had far-reaching negative effects on reproductive choice. And finally, Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce, the author of the anti-immigrant SB1070 and a notorious racist, was recalled by voters there. Small steps, but in the right direction.

Get them while they’re HOT

Metro is set to open its HOV lanes to single occupancy vehicles, but you’ll pay for the privilege if you choose it.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority board Thursday set a range of tolls from $1 to $10, depending on the time of day, for its new high-occupancy toll lanes. The first such lanes are scheduled to open in January in the Gulf Freeway’s existing high-occupancy vehicle lanes between Dixie Farm Road and Dowling Street.

Metro officials said they hadn’t yet worked out a detailed schedule of tolls. They said it was unlikely that tolls would reach the maximum of $10 when the service begins, but the agency reserves the right to charge that much if necessary to manage traffic congestion.

Metro’s maximum tolls will be significantly higher than those charged by the Harris County Toll Road Authority on its Katy Freeway managed lanes, which also charge solo drivers for access. The Katy Freeway tolls range from 30 cents on weekends to $1.60 at certain peak hours.

Only vehicles without passengers will be charged – those that would have qualified for the HOV lanes as before will still get to use them for free. I hope this raises a bunch of money, and I hope that money is then used on transit.