Category: Public Private PartnershipsLink to article here.
What's TxDOT trying to hide from the public? That our boycott of Texas' first foreign-owned toll road is working?
TxDOT mum on use of new tollway section
By Ben Wear
Austin American Statesman
January 27, 2013
Maybe they should have set the speed limit at 90.
I’m referring to the new section of the Texas 130 tollway, of course, the 41-mile stretch from Mustang Ridge to Seguin that last fall was briefly the most famous (notorious?) road in America. Having an 85-mph speed limit will do that.
But has it enticed a substantial number of drivers?
I asked the Texas Department of Transportation that question earlier this month in the form of an open records request for toll transactions at two spots along the road, information that would amount to a daily traffic count. The answer was a stiff-arm: TxDOT referred the request to the Texas attorney general for an opinion about whether it can withhold the information to protect the property interests of its private partner in the tollway.
This stands in contrast to the toll transaction and revenue figures for the northern 49 miles of Texas 130, which TxDOT built several years ago and operates. That information is readily available.
Looking for another way to skin this cat, I then asked TxDOT, in a separate open records query, to tell me its 4.65 percent share of the toll revenue on the new section of the road since tolls kicked in on Nov. 11, a couple of weeks after it opened to traffic. This likewise ended up at the AG’s office.
Which is why I ended up parked in the fog alongside the road well before dawn Wednesday, counting cars. More on that in a minute.
TxDOT, just to remind you, in 2007 reached a deal with a consortium lead by the Spanish toll road company Cintra and San Antonio-based Zachry Construction Corp. The consortium, later dubbed the SH 130 Concession Co., spent $1.3 billion of its own money to build the road, along with free frontage roads alongside it in the section north of Lockhart that used to be U.S. 183. The company also gave TxDOT $125 million in lease payments.
In return for all that, the consortium will have the right to operate the road and pocket the tolls (minus TxDOT’s cut) for the next half-century. If all goes well, from the consortium’s viewpoint, Texas drivers over time will flock to the road in numbers sufficient to make a profit for Cintra and its partners. TxDOT, in turn, would get millions of dollars it could spend on other roads.
But with this sort of public-private partnership also comes complications and compromises, including, it appears, for the concept of government in the sunshine.
Forcing TxDOT to say how the road is doing could, presumably, negatively affect the fortunes of the businesses involved. Of course, if the road is doing unexpectedly well, it might have the opposite, positive effect.
Cintra, although I’m told its lawyers are pondering the situation, hasn’t yet submitted a brief detailing how release might damage its interests. TxDOT said it is taking no official position on the matter, but in its letter to Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office, it reserved the right to weigh in later. The attorney general will have to decide how all that balances out.
I should point out an oddity now: At least some of the numbers will come out before long anyway, and the source will be Cintra’s parent company, Ferrovial. That company puts out quarterly reports showing the traffic and revenue figures for each of the tollways around the world that Cintra operates, including the Chicago Skyway and the Indiana Toll Road.
So, even if TxDOT and the attorney general keep the numbers on the QT (including, go figure, the amount of money going into the state treasury), sometime this spring Ferrovial will provide answers.
But I wanted to give you at least some sense of that now, given all the hoopla when the road opened. The flurry of attention last fall included complaints about and scrutiny of the oddly low 55-mph speed limit on the frontage roads, which gave the main toll lanes a 30-mph advantage.
First a substantial caveat: I counted traffic for just under three hours on that one particular Wednesday morning. What I’m about to tell you should be seen as something well short of definitive, as more qualitative than quantitative.
What I saw was about 1,100 northbound and southbound cars and trucks on the tollway between 6:25 a.m. and 9:15 a.m., with about 450 cars during the heaviest hour between 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m.
Traffic engineers with TxDOT have told me in the past that the rule of thumb is that the traffic during the heaviest hour of the morning rush is about 10 percent of the total daily traffic on a highway. If true in this quasi-rural case, that would mean Texas 130 in this section is seeing about 4,500 vehicles a day. Maybe it’s a thousand or two below that, or above it. Hard to say based on my short, unscientific sampling.
U.S. 183, in a 2011 TxDOT traffic count, saw almost 18,000 cars a day in this section. So the tollway, if my numbers are close, is getting about a quarter of the overall traffic, with the rest using the free frontage roads.
What to make of all these digits? Well, TxDOT on its 49 miles in November was seeing about 19,200 vehicles a day at the main toll plaza between Texas 45 North and Texas 71 (near Circuit of the Americas), and farther north near where FM 969 intersects the tollway, about 26,800 vehicles a day.
Those numbers have gone up substantially in the six-plus years since TxDOT opened the first sections of Texas 130. So, undoubtedly, will traffic on the newly opened section.
But for now, the road has perhaps 2 percent of the traffic on Interstate 35 in downtown Austin, and 5 percent or less of what I-35 sees just a few miles to the west in Buda.
TxDOT, when it had the chance a decade ago, declined to build this section of Texas 130 on its own dime. The projected traffic and revenue in sparsely populated Caldwell and Guadalupe counties, officials said back then, wouldn’t support all the borrowing it would take to pay for construction and operation of the road. Cintra and its partners, encouraged by the possibility of that 85-mph speed limit, saw it differently and took the risk.
It may take many years to find out if that was a good bet.
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