About an hour after road workers removed the hundreds of bright orange cones blocking the entrances and exits to the new State Highway 130 toll road, I gave the fastest highway in the country a test drive.
From Austin to Seguin, the road has a posted speed limit of 85 mph, a number my speedometer doesn't reach on a regular basis. On the occasions I have found myself driving that fast, it’s usually been unintentional. I would be moving along on an open stretch of some rural highway, glance down and see the needle higher than I had expected and slightly ease off the gas pedal.
Along with far too many references to a terrible Sammy Hagar song and not enough nods to the best line from Back to the Future, the new toll road has generated a vigorous debate over whether the 85 mph speed limit is just too fast.
Both state transportation officials and the SH 130 Concession Company, the private firm that built the road and has contracted to operate it for 50 years, insist the road was designed to safely handle cars traveling that fast. Given that many drivers automatically push their speed 10 miles per hour faster than the limit, I wasn’t sure I found this defense comforting.
As I’ve learned over the last month, most Texans who are opposed to an 85 mph speed limit have the same line of thinking: “Sure, I can handle driving that fast, but I drive better than most people.”
Several arguments I’ve heard in favor of the faster speed limit essentially amount to, “Lots of Texans drive that fast anyway, so why not?”
I was not as appalled as some by the prospect of such a high speed limit, but I did wonder if it would lead to more fatalities, as some advocacy groups and researchers have predicted.
All talking points aside, though, I was anxious to try out the high-speed road.
As I merged onto the highway south of downtown Austin on Wednesday afternoon, I pushed down on the gas pedal and watched my speedometer needle sail rightward. I hit 85 mph, but I had to quickly move to the left lane as two cars in the right lane were going closer to 75 mph. I passed by them and sped onward, a pristine, empty highway laid out in front of me.
I quickly got a better understanding of the "road design" defense. SH 130 is wide, straight and fairly flat. It also has less clutter than other highways – fewer signs and billboards – which made me feel like I had a better view of my surroundings.
I didn’t feel nervous about my speed on the road, though the lack of other vehicles helped tremendously. I kept staring at the wide median between the north and southbound lanes. I wondered how far my car would fly if it collided with another car at the speed I was moving.
I stopped in Lockhart and then turned around to head for Austin. There were a few more cars on the road, most traveling faster than 80 mph but not quite at the speed limit. I stopped thinking about how fast I was driving and just followed the flow of traffic. The miles seemed to pass by leisurely.
After a while, I glanced at my speedometer and nearly did a double take. I had sped up to nearly 95 mph without realizing it.