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Sordid tale behind 85 MPH speed limit gets more offensive

Category: Public Private Partnerships

Link to article here.

About that 85 mph speed limit, and a $100 million check

By Ben Wear

Austin American Statesman

Published: 7:25 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012

Turns out the saga of the Texas 130 tollway extension has even more to it than I managed to cover in this space last week.

For one thing, I was not alone in raising questions about the Texas Transportation Commission's decision to set what seems like an artificially low 55 mph speed limit on the new two-lane frontage roads alongside the as-yet unopened toll road south of Mustang Ridge. Those frontage roads will officially be U.S. 183 because this is the route U.S. 183 followed before the tollway started construction in 2009.

The new section of Texas 130, for its first 10 miles or so, will lie between those U.S. 183 frontage roads before looping west around Lockhart and continuing on to Interstate 10 near Seguin. It should open in October.

The Caldwell County commissioners on Aug. 27 unanimously passed a resolution calling on the Transportation Commission to set the speed limit on those U.S. 183 frontage roads at 65 mph.

That's the speed limit, as I wrote a week ago, that existed on that road when it was a much more dangerous, undivided four-lane road, back before tollway construction began. It is still the speed limit on the four-lane section, also with no median or center turn lane, that remains closer to Austin and, as the Caldwell officials pointed out in their resolution, on U.S. 183 south of Lockhart as well.

That 65 mph suggestion is also 10 mph slower, just for comparison sake, than the 75 mph speed limit the commission voted last week to set on 14 miles of Texas 71 from Bastrop to Smithville. Texas 71 in that stretch, like this part of U.S. 183 now saddled with a 55 mph speed limit, is a divided four-lane road with periodic intersecting county and state roads, and driveways alongside it for businesses and residents. But unlike this new version of U.S. 183, it doesn't have a huge tollway running down the middle of it, just a grassy median a few feet wide.

Perhaps life is cheaper in Bastrop County, or maybe people are safer drivers there. Although, come to think of it, I drive both places from time to time. I suspect a lot of Texans do.

The Caldwell County commissioners, in that same Aug. 27 resolution, also asked for a "special commuter rate" for county residents who go to and from Travis County every day for their jobs. Let's just say that is unlikely to happen.

The Transportation Commission, meanwhile, was very busy at that August meeting.

In that same measure where they set the higher Texas 71 speed limit, they also approved what I'm assured is an "interim" 85 mph limit on the 41 miles of Texas 130 being built by the SH 130 Concession Company. That private consortium, led by a Spanish tollway company, has a 50-year contract with the Texas Department of Transportation to build, operate and, in theory, profit from the tolls on Texas 130.

TxDOT did this, I found out last week, using the same "trial run" procedure used to set the 55 mph speed limit on the frontage roads. Under a trial run, a sole engineer drives the road at what seems a prudent speed, without looking at the speedometer, and then someone else notes the speed. The speed limit is then set at something close to the speed that engineer drove.

In this case, the engineer was a TxDOT employee. Other TxDOT folks, including the agency's Traffic Division director, also did trial runs, but only one of them counted officially. Here's where it gets interesting.

Under TxDOT's contract with the concession company, it received a $25 million up-front payment a couple of years ago. But depending on the speed limit set by the Transportation Commission, the company is contractually obligated to pay up to an additional $100 million to TxDOT, or share toll revenue with the agency for the life of the contract. The higher the speed limit, up to a ceiling of 85 mph, the higher the payments.

The commission last month likewise voted to accept that $100 million payment, giving the concession company until Jan. 15 to pay it.

So, here's the deal: Based on an "interim" speed limit of 85 mph, set based upon one driver's speed while driving on an expressway not yet open to the public, TxDOT in about four months is going to get a nine-figure check.

But permanent speed limits are set under a more rigorous process, using a speed study of 125 drivers under actual driving conditions. In theory, this study would be done in the first six months or so after the road opens in October. The limit is supposed to be set near a speed that 85 percent of the drivers are at or below during the study.

In theory, 85 percent of those drivers might be at or below, say, 76 mph. After all, 85 mph is a lot higher than most of us are used to driving and it isn't fuel-efficient. If the numbers came out that way, that would seem to suggest a 75 mph speed limit.

What happens then? Would TxDOT refund all that money? The contract would require them to do so.

Call me cynical, but I don't think that 85 mph limit is going away.
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Link to article here.

Trucking group opposing 85 mph plan for SH 130

Date: Tuesday, September 11, 2012, 10:20am CDT


The American Trucking Associations is urging the Texas Transportation Commission to reverse its decision to allow motorists to drive 85 mph on SH 130.

DONNA ABBOTT VLAHOS | THE BUSINESS REVIEW

The American Trucking Associations is urging the Texas Transportation Commission to reverse its decision to allow motorists to drive 85 mph on SH 130.

A leading U.S. trucking association is calling on the Texas Transportation Commission to reverse its decision to allow motorists to drive 85 miles per hour along a stretch of State Highway 130.

The commission oversees the Texas Department of Transportation.

American Trucking Associations President and CEO Bill Graves says there is a tremendous threat to safety from people driving that fast. The association advocates a maximum speed limit of 65 miles per hour for trucks and passenger vehicles.

State Highway 130 is a toll road that is currently under development. Once completed in November, it will run from Austin to Interstate 10 in Seguin, just east of San Antonio.

Sources: Houston Business Journal, American Trucking Associations.
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Link to article here.

Critics question 85 MPH speed limit
By Brad Rollins
September 12, 2012
San Marcos Record

The news that Texas has approved an 85 mph speed limit [1] 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 [2] 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 [3] 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 [4], 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 [5] 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. [6]

A review of research on the impact of higher speed limits on highways [7] by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute [8] 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 [9] 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.”