“Yee-haw! Texas studies 85-mph speed limit,” blared the headline from MSNBC.com in June.
“Everything’s bigger in Texas. Even the speed limits,” quipped Businessinsider.com.
The Texas Department of Transportation saw its press clippings soar earlier this year when it announced it was considering an 85 mile-per hour speed limit for a 40-mile stretch of Texas 130 from Austin to Seguin.
Currently, no road in the country has a posted speed limit faster than 80 mph. With an 85 mph designation, the new road, currently under construction, would sport the fastest speed limit in the western hemisphere, according to some reports.
The latest stretch of Texas 130 (known officially as Sectors 5 and 6) is set to open in November but the private consortium that’s building it hopes to start allowing cars and trucks on it sooner than that.
“We are contractually obligated to open by Nov. 11 and we are confident we will be open ahead of schedule,” Chris Lippincott, spokesman for the SH 130 Concession Company, said. “We hope that we’ll have an announcement on an opening date by the end of August.”
That means TxDOT needs to set the speed limit for the road soon. A TxDOT spokesman declined to say when it expected to complete speed limit tests or when an announcement would be made. Either way, the decision is sure to attract plenty of headlines.
There’s also a lot of money at stake, both for TxDOT and the private developer making a $1.3 billion bet that the road it is building will generate a profit for them over 50 years, the length of its contract.
If TxDOT grants the new section of Texas 130 an 80 mph speed limit, the agency gets an extra $67 million, according to its contract. If the road gets the coveted 85-mph speed limit, TxDOT’s payday jumps to $100 million. (TxDOT gets a bonus as long as it sets an 80 or 85-mph speed limit within six months of the road opening.)
A speed limit of 85 mph would give the consortium led by Spanish-based toll road firm Cintra another carrot to use to draw paying drivers to its new road, generating more revenue, of which TxDOT collects a share. It also would divert cars from perpetually clogged I-35, something both TxDOT and Austin-area drivers can cheer about.
The toll road was designed to allow cars to travel safely at very high speed limits, Lippincott said.
But claiming the national record is sure to ignite plenty of criticism.
David Snyder with the American Insurance Association has argued that an 85 mph speed limit will not only be dangerous but expensive too.
“As the accidents pile up on 85-mph roads, so too will insurance claims,” Snyder wrote in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial last year. “That will lead to increased insurance costs.”
Even Bobby LaBonte, a NASCAR driver and native Texan, told CNN last year that he wouldn’t drive 85 off the track.
“We're not trying to set speed records on the highway,” LaBonte said.