Concerns about speed limits on frontage roads and the Texas Department of Transportation’s use of toll lanes to expand the state’s network of highways came up for debate in a Senate committee Wednesday.
A bill from state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, was prompted by a controversy in Caldwell County where locals have accused TxDOT of lowering the speed limits on widely used frontage roads in the area in order to push drivers into using a new toll road.
U.S. Highway 183 had a posted speed limit of 65 mph before the construction of the southern end of State Highway 130, which now boasts the fastest speed limit in the country at 85 mph. The old US 183 lanes serve as frontage roads to the toll road. TxDOT’s decision last year to set the speed limit of the 183 lanes to 55 mph drew outrage.
Senate Bill 1253 would block TxDOT from taking an action that encourages use of a toll road that is adjoined to a free road without “engineering justification.”
“With toll roads being planned, constructed and maintained throughout Texas, adjacent roads to toll roads are critical for Texans planning their daily commute, especially if they are on a tight personal budget that hinders toll road usage,” Zaffirini said.
TxDOT Deputy Executive Director John Barton told the committee that the speed limit was tentatively lowered on U.S. 183 in Caldwell County until speed studies could be performed. Barton said the Texas Transportation Commission is scheduled to consider permanent speed limits on the roads on Thursday. TxDOT staff has recommended setting the speed limit on U.S. 183 at 65 mph between Mustang Ridge and Lockhart and 60 mph through Mustang Ridge, he said.
Zaffirini made clear she suspects that the speed limit on the free roads in Caldwell County were not lowered for safety reasons, as TxDOT officials have insisted.
“I don’t think it was right or very coincidental,” agreed state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, adding that she supports Zaffirini’s bill.
A bill by Campbell would prevent TxDOT from converting free roads into toll roads. TxDOT officials have repeatedly said they have no plans to add tolls to free lanes on any highway in the state. However, the agency has several projects in the works in which toll lanes are being added to existing highways, with the tolls expected to fund the construction. Officials have expressed concern that Campbell’s bill, Senate Bill 1029, would block those projects from moving forward.
C. Brian Cassidy, a partner with Locke Lord, a law firm which works with regional mobility authorities, or RMAs, said Campbell’s bill as drafted was problematic.
“This would severely impact the ability of RMAs to deliver the projects that communities have identified as important to them,” Cassidy said.
Terri Hall, founder of the anti-toll-road group Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, said Campbell’s bill is needed to ensure that toll lanes are truly serving as additions to a free highway rather than replacing existing capacity that was previously free.
“That’s truly highway robbery,” Hall said.
Campbell said she plans to file a substitute to her bill to avoid “a number of unintended consequence.” Nevertheless, she said she believes it makes sense to put language in the statute that ensures that free lanes remain free.
The committee left both bills pending.