Oct 18, 2013

Hogs Are Avoiding 85-mph Highway Now, But So Are Drivers

North of Mustang Ridge, most drivers stay on the feeder road during weekday morning rush hour. Photo by Oscar Ricardo Silva.

Toll road Texas 130 has few cars during a weekday rush hour, with most drivers stay staying on the free feeder road. Photo by Oscar Ricardo Silva. 


By Alex Dropkin
For Reporting Texas

Feral hogs are learning to steer clear of Texas 130 southeast of Austin, but many drivers appear to be avoiding it, too, despite the 85-mph speed limit and a good safety record for the alternative to perpetually clogged Interstate 35.

When the final 41-mile section of the toll road opened last Oct. 24, packs of hogs on the highway caused four crashes, none of them fatal, on the first night. The mishaps made national news because that stretch of highway has the nation’s highest speed limit.

Capt. John Roescher of the Lockhart Police Department says drivers rarely have problems with hogs now because they’ve changed their habits. The hogs are hard to spot at night because their eyes don’t reflect light, as the eyes of most wildlife do. The road passes near Lockhart on its course through Travis, Caldwell and Guadalupe counties.

“Originally, when that highway was built, it was built through basically virgin farmland, and all the wildlife was still there,” Roescher says. “But now, just like Interstate 35, with all the cars and traffic and whatever, the wildlife has moved away from it.”

Texas has an estimated 2.6 million feral hogs, which can weigh more than 400 pounds, according to the state Parks and Wildlife Department.

Texas 130, which begins at Georgetown, was conceived as an alternative route to I-35, where traffic jams are among the nation’s worst. The $1.3 billion southern segment, from Mustang Ridge to Seguin, is operated by SH 130 Concession Co., a joint venture of Spain’s Cintra S.A. and Zachry American Infrastructure LLC of San Antonio, under an agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation. The consortium has a 50-year lease on the road.

Traffic on Texas 130 hasn’t lived up to projections. In April, credit-rating agency Moody’s Investor Service downgraded $1.1 billion of debt for the project, saying the toll road’s “traffic and revenues are coming in at around half the level projected in the original traffic and revenue study.”

On Oct. 15, Moody’s downgraded the debt again. “The negative outlook reflects Moody’s view that traffic and revenue will continue to grow at a slow to moderate, yet inadequate pace in order to meet the current debt service profile,” Moody’s said in a news release.

In August, Austin television station KXAN reported that around 500,000 vehicles used the toll road each month, according to TxDOT. Efforts to confirm and update that figure were unsuccessful after multiple emails and phone calls to TxDOT.

TxDOT began offering toll discounts in March to truckers who use Texas 130.

“I would say awareness is low for our project,” says Megan Compton, public relations coordinator for SH130 Concession.

Despite its high speed limit, the 85-mph portion of Texas 130 hasn’t been particularly dangerous. TxDOT statistics show 51 accidents since the road opened. There have been two fatalities. Speed was a factor in four of the crashes. On a roughly parallel portion of I-35, there were 2,750 accidents, 13 of them involving fatalities.

“While speed is always a factor in an accident, it surprises me how few of the accidents have serious injuries in them,” says Roescher of the Lockhart police.

Compton says the highway was designed for the higher speeds, but truckers are still wary of the faster travel.

“Any time you’ve got a difference of speed from the posted speed limit and the actual speed limit that trucks normally drive, the greater the speed differential, the more concern you have over safety,” says John Esparza, president and chief executive officer of the Texas Trucking Association.