The news that Texas has approved an 85 mph speed limit for a stretch of toll road under construction outside of Austin has attracted international attention. It’s also quickly generated controversy on two fronts.
One group of critics is accusing the Texas Department of Transportation of recklessness for approving the fastest speed limit in the country for the new portion of State Highway 130 that will run from Austin to Seguin. Another is wondering whether the frontage roads running along the toll road are being given an artificially low speed limit in order to boost the toll road's revenue.
The Texas Transportation Commission approved the highest speed limit in the country for Segments 5 and 6 of SH 130 at an Aug. 30 meeting. Under the state's contract with the SH 130 Concession Company, the private firm that is building the new toll road and will operate it for 50 years, TxDOT was due a $100 million bonus payment if the commission approved an 85 mph speed limit for the road. If the speed limit was set at 80 mph, the payment dropped to $67 million.
The American Trucking Association and the Governors Highway Safety Association are among the groups that have called on the state to reverse its decision, arguing that an 85 mph speed limit is simply too dangerous.
“Higher speeds dramatically increase the risks of a catastrophic crash,” said Bill Graves, president and CEO of the American Trucking Association. “On today’s busy and congested highways, it is simply unfathomable that a state would allow drivers to put themselves and others at risk by increasing speed limits to such excessive heights.”
Both TxDOT and the SH 130 Concession Company insist that the toll road has been designed for safe driving at 85 mph. The road will be relatively straight and flat to give drivers high visibility.
"If you look at the topography, the geography and the engineering of the roadway, you can see how an 85 mph speed limit could be supported," said TxDOT spokesman Bob Kaufman.
Various studies have found that higher speed limits on highways do not cause more accidents, though they probably lead to more severe ones. Others have found that more fatal accidents are highly likely.
A review of research on the impact of higher speed limits on highways by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute notes that various factors including highway design play a role.
“A cause-and-effect relationship between speed limits and safety is not straightforward,” the institute says in its review. “The relationship among speed limits, driver speed choice, and safety on a given road is complex.”
Meanwhile, the speed limit planned for the new toll road’s frontage roads in Caldwell County has stirred a separate debate. Before construction on the toll road stretch began, U.S. Highway 183 in the county was a four-lane road. The road had a posted speed limit of 65 mph and a reputation for accidents. Now U.S. 183 will serve as the frontage roads to the new toll road with two one-way lanes on each side. Though it’s widely considered safer than the older road, TxDOT has set the speed limit for the new U.S. 183 through Caldwell County at 55 mph.
The news of the lower speed limit designation for U.S. 183 has been “the talk of the town,” said Caldwell County Judge Tom Bonn. For three years, local residents had patiently put up with lower speed limits because of construction and had assumed that the 65 mph limit would return once the project was completed, Bonn said. He believes that the speed limit was set at 55 mph to encourage drivers to use the toll road.
Furthering suspicion is a report by the Austin American-Statesman noting that the speed limit was chosen based on a trial run conducted last year by an engineer hired by the SH 130 Concession Company. TxDOT declined to comment on why a TxDOT engineer did not perform the test.
Chris Lippincott, a SH 130 Concession Company spokesman, said a lower speed limit is prudent considering the economic development that the toll road will draw to the frontage roads.
“Whataburger and Home Depot do not want their customers pulling out of their driveways onto a 65 mph racetrack,” Lippincott said. “When you look at frontage roads with high speeds, you tend to find limited growth and too many wrecks.”
Local elected officials are skeptical. Both the Caldwell County Commissioners and the Lockhart City Council have passed resolutions calling on TxDOT to return the U.S. 183 speed limit to 65 mph and offer a discounted toll rate for Caldwell County residents that have to commute to jobs in Travis County. Members of the Legislature are also hearing complaints about it.
“I think public opinion is going to change it,” Bonn said. “It’s a bad decision.”