A drive on a Texas high-speed toll road: Is this how everybody will drive in the future? I hope not.

Tapping the brakes on the fastest road in Texas.Tapping the brakes on the fastest road in Texas.

Over the holidays I had the opportunity to travel south on the newest Texas toll road, otherwise known as State Highway 130. The 131-mile road was built to ease Austin’s crushing traffic burdens, particularly along Interstate 35, but controversy has dogged the project since the road opened.

The financing for SH 130 has always been shaky. Many in the state complained that the tolls were too high and that it was seeing only half the anticipated traffic it needed to remain viable. The consortium that owns the project was downgraded to junk status by Moody’s Investor Service in 2013. Many Texans say it’s time for the state DOT to take over the project and run it without tolls.

My party and I hit the onramp to SH 130 in the Austin/Round Rock area, and headed south to Seguin, just east of San Antonio. What I discovered was not what I expected—good in some ways and not so good in others.

On the approach, the road is an attractive piece of work, with patterned concrete walls framed in earth toned borders. But to my surprise, there were no toll booths, nobody to give your money to, nobody to ask about the fares or the location of on- and off-ramps. Overhead cameras snap a photo of your license plate as you enter the highway, and every few miles you pass under additional banks of cameras.

Presumably, at the end of 30 days, the state counts up how many times your tag was photographed and where, and sends you a bill. I say presumably because there’s no way to know this for sure. I was in an out-of-state rental car, which raised additional questions. My son, who was traveling with me, found via Google information that said the rental car company would bill me for the tolls and that a “service and handling fee” might be expected.

The individual toll prices were posted above the camera banks: one set of figures for two axles, additional columns for additional axles, and one set of prices for people who subscribe to the toll system and another set of dollar amounts for everybody else. Given that there was a dimwit in a dually leaning on his horn as I entered the on-ramp and the fact that I was driving 80 to 90 mph, there was no way I could read these numbers, let alone keep up with the totals.

So the question became: for some 70 miles of travel are they going to charge me $10 or $25? $50? I have no idea. The rental car company didn’t add any charges when I turned the car in. I suppose I’ll have to wait to see what shows up on the credit card. And what’s the service/handling fee going to be? $10? $100. I’m assuming it will be reasonable, but I don’t like not knowing.

As for the volume of traffic, SH 130 was plenty busy in the Austin area around 4 p.m. on a weekday. It wasn’t quite bumper to bumper, but crowded enough to slow everybody down to about 65, despite posted speed limits of 80 to 85 mph.

About 10 minutes after we got on SH 130, an accident near the Bergstrom Air Force Base exit stopped traffic entirely for about 20 minutes. That was rich. Sitting still on the fastest road in the country, going nowhere in a hurry. But once we cleared the wreck the pace picked up and the traffic thinned out considerably. By the Lockhart exit we were up to the posted 85 mph and passed under another four or five camera points and unreadable pricing charts.

The last 25 miles or so we might as well have been in the Gobi desert. Cars and trucks spaced out 200 yards or better between them. It was a peaceful, scenic drive, reminding me of the old days when driving was a pleasure. And I love the fact that there were no billboards or visual pollution—just the rolling Texas countryside.

But the absence of traffic calls into question the value of the southernmost stretch of SH 130. The termination point in Seguin is still a long way from I-35. Seguin is fine for drivers headed east/west on I-10. But the north/south traffic on I-35 around Austin was the problem SH 130 was supposed to solve.

Other than the confusion about costs and payment, I can’t say there was anything major I disliked about my hour and a half on SH 130. But the whole idea of a toll road still rubs me and a lot of Texans, the wrong way. I’m old enough to remember when Texas first started building interstates in the early 60s. We lived in San Antonio and visited relatives in Austin frequently.

I-35 then was a point of pride for everybody. It showed the world what we could do when we all worked together. Many of the roads connecting to the interstates helped farmers and ranchers get produce and livestock to market faster, cheaper and more profitably. To this day they’re still designated as “FM” roads, meaning “farm to market.”

My uncle in Austin owned a commercial tire dealership and the increase in road construction was good for him too. Zachry Construction, which built many of these roads, was a name you’d hear frequently and favorably mentioned around the holiday tables and the conversations of adults. Civil engineering, we were told as scruffy young kids, was a profession worth aspiring to. We were walking tall back then and it felt good. The motto on Texas license plates was: “Drive Friendly.”

Now it seems like we’re all walking small. The motto today: “Don’t Mess With Texas,” reeks of insecurity. In the rural areas people are still as friendly as ever, but on the interstates every trip is a white-knuckle event. In addition to the NASCAR-like atmosphere on the freeways you’ve got different tolls for different roads and no two cities do them quite the same. State politicians play shell games with tolls and gas taxes, bankers and bond salesmen angle to get their cut and the lack of transparency in the process is an open invitation for local governments to divert funds.

SH 130 is Texas’ only attempt at a P3 highway project (public-private-partnership). Outgoing Governor Rick Perry pushed hard for P3s in Texas, but his massive Trans-Texas corridor P3 was shot down by voters skeptical of corporate profit taking at the expense of a public’s transportation rights.

Eisenhower’s 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act created the interstate systems and decades of work, prosperity and benefits for the future. Now we’re looking back at decades of neglect and wondering what went wrong.

The Tea Party, conservatives and Republicans have a legitimate beef about the size of government. But what they have not addressed, what I suspect they’re reluctant to talk about, is defining the proper size and role of government. They need to answer the question: Does the construction, maintenance and governance of our transportation infrastructure belong in the public sphere or not?

If not, then I want to put a toll booth in front of my house. If international consortiums can profit from this business, why can’t I?

But if our roads are a public good, then we should stop all this penny-wise-pound-foolish toll road profiteering and go back to building and maintaining our roads the way Eisenhower intended: of the people, by the people and for the people.