By Kathi Bliss
Despite the promises made by community leaders and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) during the early stages of SH-130 construction, Lockhart and Caldwell County commuters are being negatively impacted by the controversial highway, and are calling everyone they can think of to do something about it.
Last week, just before the SH-130 Concession Company began charging tolls on the new highway, which opened for drivers on Oct. 24, commuters noticed changes – particularly changes to the “US Highway 183” portion of the road between Lockhart’s northern city limits and Mustang Ridge.
Though TxDOT had promised that commuters would not see impediments to traffic on their “free” highway, stoplights were being installed at several intersections where none had existed before.
In addition, the speed limit – already set at a controversial 55 miles per hour, against the backdrop of SH-130’s record-breaking 85 mph limit – was dropped between Lockhart and FM 1185 to 50 miles per hour. The 2.4 mile stretch ends with a stop light at FM 1185, north of which the speed limit increases to 55 miles per hour for the next 9.8 miles.
After the Mustang Ridge interchange, of course, the speed limit increases to 65 miles per hour – as it does south of the city of Lockhart as US 183 continues toward Luling.
The decision of TxDOT to decrease the speed limit has caused an uproar on social media, with many commuters insisting the move was made to force commuter traffic to drive the high-speed and high-dollar SH-130.
Based on information provided by the SH-130 Concession Company’s website, drivers might expect to pay up to $2.67 each way to drive only on the 11-mile stretch of SH-130 that was built to overlap tax-funded US Highway 183.
Highway 183 in that area is now being referred to as a “service road,” according cording to representatives from SH-130, and the stretch is included in the 50-year service and maintenance contract that went into effect on Sunday, at the same time tolls began charging.
“If you think about it, commuters in your area still do have options,” said SH130 spokesman Chris Lippincott. “It is still free to drive the service road. And all that road was repaved, and expanded, and all that was done at no cost to the taxpayers. We [SH130 Concession Company] paid for that.”
He also said that SH130 Concession would be responsible for all maintenance, paving and management of “the service road” throughout the duration of the contract with TxDOT, and that the road formerly known as Highway 183 would be supported not by taxpayers, but by toll payers.
Lippincott naturally defended the independent survey that suggested the speed limit should be lowered to 55 miles per hour, and denied the decrease was a move to drive commuters onto the toll road.
“Of course, we want people to use the road and we want to make our money back,” he said. “But the decision to set the speed limit at 55 miles per hour was made by TxDOT, not by us, and we didn’t have anything to do with that.”
He added that the traffic controls and lights were being installed because they had been recommended to increase traffic safety in the stretch.
Commuters aren’t buying it.
Begging for relief from anywhere they can get it, many drivers who travel from Lockhart to Austin daily for work have begun letter-writing, email and phone campaigns asking for the State Legislature to intervene, as requests from the City of Lockhart and from Caldwell County have fallen on deaf ears.
Many have lambasted SH130 Concession, TxDOT, and even local leadership for the promises that were so clearly made and have so clearly been broken as the highway construction has been completed.
“They’re doing it to us on purpose,” one said. “This is TxDOT making us drive on that road, so that they can collect the tolls.”
Notably, while the State of Texas will collect a percentage of all tolls charged in connection with SH130, that amount is only estimated to be a few cents per trip. The bulk of the money will be collected by SH130 Concession and used to recoup their construction costs as well as to maintain the highway.
Though calls from this reporter were not immediately returned, representatives from TxDOT have insisted to other media outlets that the speed limit changes and stop light installations are not an effort to drive traffic on to the toll road. Instead, they said, factors such as terrain, pavement levels and the number of driveways played into the decision.
“Poppycock,” one social media user responded. “The ‘new road’ runs along the same area with the same curves and the same terrain as the old one.”
State Senator Glenn Hegar has responded to the requests, recently sending a resolution to Caldwell County Judge Tom Bonn expressing his support for local endeavors to have the speed limit restored to 65 miles per hour. It is expected that Senator Judith Zaffrini will soon issue a similar resolution.
Lippincott suggested that his company expected blowback from commuters, but believed it would die down with time.
“Up in Cedar Park, they were up in arms when they had to start using a toll road, too,” he said. “And the tolls are higher than ours are going to be.”
The difference, according to social media, is that in Cedar Park, a toll road was not built on top of an existing, taxpayer-funded road.