A new toll road is opening soon in Central Texas, stretching from Austin to the town of Seguin, outside of San Antonio.
State Highway 130 was built to relieve traffic along neighboring Interstate 35, one of the most congested roadways in Texas. But this stretch of toll road has a draw of its own: It recently had its speed limit approved at 85 mph, the fastest in the nation.
The dream of barreling down an open road at 85 mph is undoubtedly appealing to gridlock-prone Texas motorists. (Portions of SH 130 are already open - with a slightly lower speed - but have seen relatively scant traffic.)
Hoping that dream doesn’t turn into a nightmare is Russ Rader, spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a non-profit highway research group funded by the auto insurance industry. He notes that speed limits have been on the increase for some time.
“In the early 70s, the Arab oil embargo prompted Congress to impose a maximum speed limit of 55 mph, and then Congress allowed that to increase to 65 mph in the 1980s. And then that Federal requirement was repealed altogether in 1995. So it went back to what it was prior to 1973, which was that states were responsible for setting their maximum speed limits – and since then speed limits have been going up.”
The toll road has its own reasons for pushing it to the limit: As Austin-American Statesman transportation reporter Ben Wear recently told KUT News, the toll road is owned by a private Spanish company, Cintra, and leased to the state. Cintra hopes the higher speed limits will mean more toll-paying motorists. The Texas Department of Transportation, which reaps a portion of Cintra’s profits, hopes that will mean more money for them.
In some ways, Texas, with its long expanses of space, is better suited to higher limits than a winding freeway in the Northeast, or the California coastline. “Certainly, roads that are divided highways that are wide and flat are amongst the safest roads,” Rader says.
But Rader adds “there’s no question that when you raise speed limits and increase speeds you increase crashes and severity of crashes when they happen. It’s just physics. … The bottom line is that when speed limits go up, deaths on those roads go up, and when speed limits go down, crash deaths on those roads go down. There’s a direct correlation.”
It took a new law, passed in 2011, to get the new limits in place. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham, favorably compared the new limit to Germany’s Autobahn, saying “There could be some merit in having some of those highways in Texas.”
Signs for the new 85 mph speed limit started going up along SH 130 this week. Toll rates along the road are still being set, and the road is expected to open this November.