By Kathi Bliss
Despite delays caused by an historic drought and the catastrophic flooding that followed, construction of State Highway 130 is drawing to a close, with a projected opening date earlier than originally expected.
According to a presentation given by SH-130 Concession Company representatives last week, construction on the southbound lanes of the highway are nearly complete, and work on the northbound lanes should only take a matter of weeks.
“Our target open date was Nov. 11, 2012,” said Chief Operations Officer Matt Pierce on Friday afternoon. “But if everything goes as it has been, we expect to be open sometime in mid-October.”
Concerns began to grow last fall, when the freshly-laid asphalt began to crack. Throughout the spring, crews worked to strip away the damaged asphalt and lay fresh material; at the same time, they changed the sub-structure of the highway in an effort to “keep the wet parts wet and the dry parts dry,” Pierce said.
Part of those changes includes digging one-foot wide ditches eight feet long periodically along the edge of the pavement. Those ditches, Pierce said, are intended to draw moisture away from the roadway itself, preserving the integrity of the clay soil substructure, which has a tendency to expand during wet weather and contract during dry spells.
Much of the construction of Segments 5 and 6 (from Mustang Ridge to Seguin) of the highway occurred during a time of historic drought, record heat and record-low rainfalls. When the weather pattern broke and some moisture returned to the soil, the land beneath the highway expanded, causing the cracks to appear.
While Pierce said they continue to expect imperfections in the asphalt, he believes the changes made to the structure and the repaving process, which cost nearly $30 million, will help to contain those imperfections to near the edges of the roadway, as opposed to near the center, where the cracks had appeared earlier this year.
An additional step taken to help reduce cracking and maintenance on the roadway, as well as to push the construction toward its target date, is a state-of-the art paving process which involves paving both lanes at the same time, effectively creating one giant slab of asphalt.
Oftentimes, one lane of a road is paved and allowed to cool, and then paving is completed on the other lane.
The echelon technique, Pierce said, allows for a more stable and smoother road surface, without changes in level from lane to lane.
When the long-planned roadway opens later this year, it will be one of the “fastest” roads in Texas, according to SH130 Concessions Chief Executive Officer Javier Gutierrez, who spoke at the Lockhart Economic Development Summit on Friday.
The speed limit along the tollway, he said, is expected to be set at 85 miles per hour, significantly reducing commute time to Austin, San Antonio and points beyond. Tolls on the road will be assessed by the toll station, rather than by the mile, he said, and the trip from San Antonio to Georgetown along the full, 90-mile expanse of SH130 is likely to cost around $6 for a light vehicle.
Those tolls, he said, will be payable by mail, or via TxTAG.
Under the lease between SH130 Concession and the Texas Department of Transportation, those tolls will be split between the two organizations over the course of a 50-year lease that puts SH130 in charge of construction, maintenance of the four-lane road.
Long seen as a beacon of economic development by some, SH130 presents a unique concern for Lockhart and Caldwell County residents, as it is one of the first times in history that a toll road has been constructed on top of an existing, free, state-maintained thoroughfare. Austin commuters have expressed concern since construction began as to how their daily commute would be affected by the highway, both during construction and after the road opens.
Gutierrez addressed the “free portions” of SH130 briefly on Friday, specifically with regard to the access roads to SH130 between Lockhart and Mustang Ridge, which previously existed as US Highway 183.
Based on recent conversations with TxDOT, Gutierrez said the plan was still in place for the access roads to be available from Lockhart to Mustang Ridge. However, the speed limits on those access roads, he said, were likely to be 55 mph or lower in the north and southbound lanes.
That is the same speed limit, some have noted, which has been in place during the construction. Discussions with City of Lockhart officials have suggested 90 days after the highway opens, TxDOT representatives may be willing to perform a study to reassess those speed limits.
Watch future editions of the Post-Register for the latest news on the SH130 construction and opening.