For drivers traveling in central Texas, traffic congestion is a defining issue, which they hope a record-breaking $1.35-billion project will alleviate.
Two counties in the Austin, TX area are the second and fourth fastest growing counties in the state. Truck traffic along the I-35 corridor has increased fivefold as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
According to a 1998 traffic evaluation report, congestion in the Austin area costs $194 million per year in higher operating costs and lost opportunities. Anticipated traffic growth will increase this cost to $456 million by 2010.
Unfortunately, regular state highway funding commitments did not anticipate the current challenges. Without additional funding, Texas is able to fund only one-third of the state’s infrastructure needs.
In response to this shortfall, the Texas State Legislature created the Texas Turnpike Authority (TTA), a division of the Texas Department of Transportation. Its mission is to build a series of statewide toll roads, with the hope of using the excess revenue to fund other transportation needs. The TTA is currently focusing its attention on several toll roads, known as the Central Texas Turnpike Project.
In June of this year a contract was signed to begin construction of a $1.38-billion State Highway 130, the largest highway project in Texas history. This new 90-mi. (150 km) controlled access transportation facility, from Georgetown to Seguin, TX, is the first step towards reducing congestion in the Austin area.
It also initiates a unique approach to design, construction and system management of a highway system.
The TTA awarded an exclusive development agreement to Lone Star Infrastructure of Pflugerville, TX, to provide design, construction and maintenance services on S.H. 130. Lone Star Infrastructure is a consortium of 19 different companies and entities led by Fluor Corporation, based in Aliso Viejo, CA.
For the Texas Turnpike Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) the exclusive development agreement is a first. According to TTA director Phil Russell, “It’s very similar to a design-build concept. The flip side is that it has a maintenance obligation tacked on the back.”
Instead of dividing project components, such as funding, into separate phases, this agreement allows certain operations to proceed simultaneously. For example, while construction is proceeding on one part of the project, right-of way acquisition and design can occur on other parts.
“It really improves our economies of scale,” director Russell said.
The short list for the agreement included three developers. According to director Russell, there was intensive analysis of the services each one could provide.
“Each developer was examined extensively, regarding the services each could provide, and in the end all three were very close.”
Funding for the Central Turnpike System will come from five different sources. $2.3 billion will come from a 2002 bond sale. The remaining amount will come from other bonds, TXDOT funding obligations, local contributions and project interest earnings.
Along with reducing congestion, the S.H. 130 and other future projects could generate as many as 147,540 jobs. This figure is based on an equation the TXDOT uses to determine job creation as the result of highway projects.
Using the state’s formula, the S.H. 130 project alone could generate 11,494 full-time construction jobs, along with 28,666 indirect jobs resulting from material purchase agreements. Additionally, another 21,092 jobs could be created in industries benefiting from direct or indirect employment.
In total, the S.H. 130 project alone could create 61,252 full-time jobs.
According to Sandy Hentges, spokesperson for the Austin Chamber of Commerce, “Reducing congestion and improving mobility will give us the ability to keep and attract new companies that rely on ’just-in-time’ deliveries. It will also provide a reliable commute for our workforce, along with providing a higher quality of life.”
As an alternative route to I-35, S.H. 130 may provide an attractive option for NAFTA-related commercial traffic. Additionally, access to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport should improve.
Year 2020 forecasts of S.H. 130 traffic range from a high of 124,000 vehicles per day in the northern section to a low of 22,000 in the southern section, which is more rural.