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As toll road opens, a question lingers: is 85 mph safe?
By Ben Wear
Austin American Statesman
October 23, 2012
How fast is too fast?
Around noon Wednesday, workers will begin moving barricades at entrances and exits on the new 41-mile-long section of the Texas 130 tollway south of Austin, and drivers will begin doing something they’ve never done legally in Texas: go 85 mph.
The Legislature, based on a law it passed last year, thought driving that speed -- a higher limit than any other road in America -- will be safe, or at least sufficiently safe to justify the time savings and other economic benefits it could bring to drivers and the state. That includes a $100 million payment to the Texas Department of Transportation (tied to the higher speed limit) from the company that built the tollway, will operate it and will pocket most of the toll revenue for the next 50 years.
TxDOT officials say 85 mph is safe given the design of the four-lane, divided expressway, or at least no less safe than if the limit were 5 or 10 mph lower. And they say the higher limit doesn’t necessarily mean that many drivers, adopting a strategy common at lower speed limits, will simply add a cushion unlikely to earn them a speeding ticket and drive about 90 mph. The overwhelming majority will drive speeds that are prudent, TxDOT maintains.
But some traffic safety experts say that when a speed limit is increased, drivers typically go faster; that when speeds increase there are more accidents; and that more people die in those accidents because of the greater forces involved.
“We have decades of study and data, and conclusive evidence, that people do respond to speed limits no matter how high they’re set,” said Richard Retting, a widely published traffic safety expert and vice president of the New York-based engineering firm Sam Schwartz Inc. “We just have to learn that there is no free lunch when it comes to high speed limits. And the price we pay is higher speeds and a higher fatality rate.”
Speed limits across the country have been on a steady climb since 1987, when Congress eased the nationwide 55-mph speed limit imposed in 1974 after an Arab oil embargo caused gasoline shortages and rising prices. That move also came as environmental consciousness was on an upswing, and the lower limit was seen as a way to reduce tailpipe emissions and the resultant air pollution. Automobiles generally get the best gas mileage at about 55 mph, experts say, and the fuel efficiency steadily decreases as speeds go up.
After allowing 65-mph limits on rural interstates in 1987, Congress in 1995 once again put speed limit authority completely in state hands. Many states, including Texas, responded by raising most interstate limits to 70 mph. In 2002, Texas began setting 75-mph limits on some highways in sparsely populated counties. In 2006, TxDOT raised the limit on sections of Interstates 10 and 20 in West Texas to 80 mph.
Since the Legislature last year broadened TxDOT’s authority to set 75-mph limits and higher, the Texas Transportation Commission has been increasing limits almost monthly. There are now almost 7,000 miles of Texas roads with a 75-mph limit and 575 miles where it is legal to go 80 mph. That’s almost 10 percent of the state highway system.
Carol Rawson, director of TxDOT’s traffic operations division, said data from those two West Texas interstates, as well as two Austin-area tollways that for several months have had 80-mph speed limits, buttresses the idea that speeds and fatality rates on Texas 130 will not necessarily skyrocket.
In the three-year period before the 80-mph limit went into effect on I-10 and I-20, that 520 miles of highway saw 103 traffic fatalities, or about 34 deaths per year. In the next six years, there have been 146 deaths, or 24 per year. That’s a decrease, on an annual basis, of about 29 percent.
“It says to me the speed didn’t impact the numbers,” Rawson said. “I think the 85 (on Texas 130) is safe and prudent.”
On the existing 49 miles of Texas 130, also a tollway, which opened between 2006 and 2008 with a 70-mph speed limit, TxDOT first increased the limit to 75 mph and then, in April, to 80 mph. At the same time, the agency increased the limit to 80 mph on Texas 45 Southeast, another tollway that connects Interstate 35 to Texas 130 near Mustang Ridge. Rawson said there have been no deaths on either road since the change.
Other safety factors
But Retting said Rawson’s simple comparison on I-10 and I-20 ignores other factors that have driven down traffic fatalities statewide and across the country, including greater use of seat belts, safety improvements in vehicles such as added airbags, and the economic downturn, which led to less driving. The more relevant comparison, he said, is traffic deaths per million miles driven, not per year. Rawson could not provide those statistics for the 85-mph sections of I-10 and I-20.
Traffic deaths in Texas fell from 3,822 in 2003 to 3,015 last year, a 21 percent drop. Nationwide, traffic deaths fell 28 percent in that period, comparable to the decline on the two interstates with the 80-mph limit.
“We don’t know what the fatality rate would have been (on I-10 and I-20) without the increased speed limits,” Retting said.
Retting, who was with the Virginia-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety at the time, studied speeds on those roads after TxDOT increased the limit from 75 to 80 mph. According to his 2008 analysis in the Journal of Safety Research, I-20 saw a 9-mph increase in average speed, and I-10 had a 4-mph average increase. The portion of vehicles going over 80 mph increased from 1 percent to 10 percent on I-20 and from 4 percent to 7 percent on I-10.
“What concerns us most is the percentage of drivers who are driving at very high speed,” Retting said. The vehicle safety improvements and the decreasing highway deaths in recent years may have created a false sense of the relationship between safety and speed, he said.
“We don’t want to lose that momentum and the benefit by raising limits,” Retting said.
In 2005, Norwegian Rune Elvik, chief research officer for the Institute of Transport Economics at the University of Oslo, did a so-called meta-analysis of 98 studies, conducted over almost 40 years, of the nexus between road speed and traffic fatalities. His conclusion: “Speed has a major impact on the number of accidents and the severity of injuries,” and “the relationship between speed and road safety is causal, not just statistical.”
When TxDOT opened the northern section of Texas 130 and two connecting toll roads, it paid the Texas Department of Public Safety to dedicate extra troopers to the road. That contract ended in 2011, and neither TxDOT nor the SH 130 Concession Co., the new section’s operator, has arranged for added enforcement.
The about-to-open stretch of Texas 130, despite the higher speed limit, will get the same level of enforcement as any other road in the state highway system, officials said. In an opening promotion meant to allow potential customers to familiarize themselves with the road, it will be free to drive until Nov. 11. After that, tolls will be about 15 cents a mile for cars and other two-axle vehicles. Larger trucks will pay multiples of that, based on the number of axles.
Rawson said the experience with the state’s 80-mph roads indicates that these higher legal thresholds may be close to that indefinable prudent limit and won’t be widely flouted.
“We haven’t seen it with the 80s,” Rawson said. “But the 85 is a brand new one. It’s certainly something we’ll keep an eye on.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the tollway operator, SH 130 Concession Company, will keep all toll revenue. The Texas Department of Transportation will receive a portion of the revenue, starting at 4.65 percent and potentially escalating as revenue from the tollway increases.
Link to article here.
SH 130 opens just after noon
By Ben Wear
Austin American Statesman
October 24, 2012
UPDATE, 3:40 p.m. All lanes of Texas 130’s new section were open to traffic as of about 2:50 p.m., said Chris Lippincott, a spokesman for the SH 130 Concession Company.
The first vehicles to travel the new section of Texas 130 — a Serta mattress truck and a silver SUV carrying a Lockhart woman who will be commuting to her Austin teaching job — rolled past a throng of dignitaries, media, construction workers, engineers and other interested spectators at exactly 11:25 a.m. Wednesday. They were traveling at a leisurely 45 mph.
That is about half the speed that non-ceremonial drivers will be going on Central Texas’ newest 41 miles of tollway, which stretches from near Mustang Ridge (southeast of Austin) to Interstate 10 near Seguin. The road will be “the fastest highway in the United States,” former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said during the dedication that preceded the driveby, with an 85 mph speed limit.
That unprecedented speed limit, set by the Texas Transportation Commission this summer, earned the Texas Department of Transportation an additional $100 million in payment from the SH 130 Concession Company, which built the $1.3 billion road at its own expense and will operate it for the next 50 years under a lease with TxDOT. The state agency, which earlier got a $25 million concession payment from the company, will also get a cut of the tolls, starting at 4.65 percent and escalating as traffic increases over the years.
The road is the first tollway to open in Texas under such a public-private arrangement. Several more are under construction in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Gov. Rick Perry, whose push for toll road construction and the sort of private toll road leases that made this road possible, said that there was a lot of skepticism about those approaches when he and the late Ric Williamson began pushing for them a decade ago.
“There was no shortage of individuals inside and outside the Capitol who said it couldn’t be done,” Perry said to the crowd of about 250 people, including mayors and other elected officials from Caldwell, Guadalupe and Hays counties. “It can be seen now in asphalt and concrete that it can be done.”
Perry, brandishing a three-foot-long pair of scissors like a rifle, later cut a red ribbon to officially baptize the new pavement.
Workers were to begin taking down barricades at exits and entrances about noon, starting in the southbound lanes near Seguin and moving north, then doing a similar procedure on the northbound lanes. Opening the entire road should take at least a couple of hours, officials said.
This section of Texas 130 will flow seamlessly into the northern 49 miles, which TxDOT built and operates, and opened between 2006 and 2008. Traffic, although it has been steadily increasing on that northern part, is still relatively light. The speed limit on TxDOT’s section, where tolls are about 11 cents a mile for those with an electronic toll tag, was increased to 80 miles per hour in April.
The toll for cars and other two-axle vehicles will be about 15 cents a mile on the southern 41 miles, costing $6.17 for the whole trip. Trucks will pay multiples of that up 75 cents a mile, depending on the number of axles.
So what sort of traffic is forecast by the SH 130 Concession Company, a consortium led by Spanish toll road company Cintra? Such figures have been made public by TxDOT and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority on their five Austin-area toll roads. Patrick Rhode, Cintra US vice president for corporate affairs, declined to give figures.
“Honestly, it’s too early to tell,” Rhode said before the ceremony. “We expect to see growth over time with a road positioned between two major metropolitan areas like Austin and San Antonio.”
Link to article here.
America's fastest highway now open
By Heather Kovar and Jessica Vess
October 24, 2012
LOCKHART, Texas -- The final stretch of State Highway 130 opened to drivers Wednesday.
Dozens gathered at a ribbon cutting ceremony along the toll road in Lockhart near SH 142, including Texas Governor Rick Perry and the mayors of Lockhart and Seguin.
The ceremony debuted sections five and six of SH 130 to drivers for the first time. It includes 41 miles stretching from Mustang Ridge south of Austin, to Interstate 10 in Seguin. The two phases complete the 130 toll road project.
The new parts of SH 130 boast the fastest speed limit in the nation at 85 miles-per-hour.
Kelli Reyna with the Texas Department of Transportation says the stretch of road was built for speed, but that drivers must stay alert.
"You have to realize the driver responsibility of being safe on the roadway," Reyna said. If a driver had to suddenly brake while driving 85 mph, it's estimated the driver would travel 532 feet before coming to a stop. "Possibly you could get into a fatal accident going that kind of speed," said Tommy Barron whose family has owned a towing and body shop in Lockhart for 45 years.
He showed KVUE damage done to vehicles that were going about 60 or 70 miles an hour. He says he'd hate to see what could happen at 85 mph, especially if a driver is distracted. "They're going to have a tendency to go off the road, and once you go off the road at 85 mph, it's going to be hard to correct that," Barron said. He points out it's a good thing that north and southbound traffic is divided to help eliminate head-on crashes.
The opening of this highway marks a big turn for not only commuting, but economic development too.
“It's been a long time coming, but I'm telling you the wait was worth it because what it's going to do is it's going to open up another whole area for development -- not only residential, retail, for travel, but also economic development that will bring so much more not only to the city of Seguin but the city of Lockhart and all the area in between,” said Seguin Mayor Betty Matthies.
The new stretch of SH 130 is a toll road. Drivers will have to pay to use the road. The price for drivers in a family car or truck is about 15 cents a mile. That comes out to about $6.17 to get through the entire 41-mile stretch. Truck drivers will pay more based on the number of axles. It will cost the driver of an 18-wheeler roughly $24 to complete the drive. That’s based on the discounted price for drivers with a TXTag account. Drivers who don't have a tag can still use the toll, but they'll pay more. A bill will come in the mail.
For the first few weeks following the opening of sections five and six, tolls will be waived. The Toll Authority will begin charging tolls on Nov. 11.
Motorists begin going 85 — or more — on Texas 130
By Vianna Davila
Updated 8:04 a.m., Thursday, October 25, 2012
LOCKHART — The car rattled some, but it still took to the speed easily.
I was driving on the just-opened Texas 130 toll road extension Wednesday through an undeveloped swath of Central Texas. Green fields and pastures unrolled in front of me. I passed other vehicles but not many, as my speedometer quickly climbed to 85 mph.
No fear of cops here, I was following the letter of the law.
The Texas 130 extension, connecting south Austin to Interstate 10 in Seguin, is the state's first public-private toll road and the first road in the country with an 85-mph limit.
Those factors may have explained the mix of anticipation and celebration at the grand opening Wednesday morning, marked by the attendance of several high-ranking state officials, including Gov. Rick Perry.
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