TxDOT cashes-in by slowing free routes

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TxDOT Insists It's Not Taking the Low Road to Increase Toll Traffic
By Jason Wheeler
November 13, 2012

Many drivers are enjoying the rush of the fastest speed limit in the country; 85 miles an hour on the new stretch of the SH 130 toll road that extends down to I-10.  But just beneath the "whoosh"€™ sounds left behind by the fast passing lead foots there's a growing cacophony of criticism about the new speed limit -- not the 85, but the 55.

"The 55 speed limit is ridiculous,"€ exclaims Karen Morrison from the passenger seat of a pick-up truck.  She is talking about the new 55 mph limit on the rebuilt stretch of Hwy 183 which runs alongside the toll road.   It used to be 65; and it still is down the road on 183 where opposing traffic is separated by inches.  So why, when the lanes are separated by an entire toll road, is the speed limit lower? 

Morrison is certain, "œThere is no good reason.  The only good reason is money -- as far as getting you to use the toll road."€

Morrison and other drivers we talked to have swiftly come to a conclusion for why the part of the highway that runs along the toll road has a slower speed.  Driver Susie Kadar explains it like this, "You'€™re either going to take an hour and a half to go two miles or you are going to get on the toll road and get there in a decent time.  That's...€¦I was going to say a nasty word."€

The word the Texas Department of Transportation uses is safety.  TxDOT says the 55 limit on Hwy 183 is there to protect drivers and that many factors went into the decision.  TxDOT spokeswoman Kelli Reyna listed a few for us, "€œThe terrain of the roadway, the level of pavement that is out there, how many curves there are, the access control, how many different driveways, entrances and exits -- all come into play."

Road managers insist increasing toll traffic was not a factor.  They bristle at the suggestion that they would artificially lower the limit on the free road to drive traffic onto the much faster pay as you go road.  Reyna says, "€œThat'€™s never been a practice of ours.  Here at TxDOT we'€™ve been setting speed limits for over 70 years."

But a TxDOT PowerPoint document from nine years ago makes some people skeptical.

Called "Toll Road Finance 101”, the presentation outlined the “dollars and sense of toll roads”.  Among other things, the document warned that “free alternatives mean lower revenues”.  The guide called for limiting “competing facilities” and it advised avoiding “frontage roads” or using “discontinuous frontage roads”.  You can see that tactic in places along Central Texas tollways; spots where even the most toll averse drivers eventually come to the end of their road and have to get on and pay.  

Transportation officials assure the 2003 document is an outdated directive and that the 55 mile an hour speed limit on Hwy 183 was set by an independent contractor with no input from TxDOT.   And they say state engineers will soon reconsider the limit.  In the meantime, TxDOT proudly points out drivers in that area will have two choices, one that costs and one that’s free; but both of which are new, and neither of which are congested.