With an 85 mph speed limit, the recently opened southern stretch of Texas Highway 130 between Austin and San Antonio boasts the highest speed limit in the USA and offers a quicker alternative to the daily gridlock of nearby Interstate 35.
The road is also Texas' first-ever privately financed and operated toll road. A consortium consisting of Spanish firm Cintra Concession Co. and San Antonio-based Zachary American Infrastructure built and will maintain the road in exchange for a share of its toll revenues.
But highway safety advocates say Highway 130 is the latest in a dangerous trend of states raising their legal limits, with more states are sure to follow. Since the federal government repealed the nationwide 55 mph speed limit in 1995, 35 states have set speed limits of 70 mph or higher on some of their roads, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Texas officials say Highway 130 is engineered to safely allow the high speeds. Three weeks after opening in late October, however, the artery saw its first traffic fatality.
"They've designed a modern roadway that's as safe as can be," said Russ Rader, a spokesman with the Insurance Institute. "But you can't get around the law of physics: the faster you go, the more likely it is a crash will happen and the more severe the crash will be."
Speed was involved in about one-third of the 32,885 U.S. traffic fatalities counted in 2010, the latest year such figures are available, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But the number of speeding-related fatalities has been steadily falling, from 13,799 in 2002 to 10,395 in 2010.
States like Texas and Utah raised their limits to 80 mph on some roads but haven't seen a noticeable rise in traffic accidents, said John Bowman of the National Motorists Association, a drivers' advocacy group that supports responsible raising of speed limits.
"It's a common misconception that higher speeds mean more fatalities," Bowman said. "The data doesn't prove that out nationally."
In Texas, which sees 1,000 new residents move in each day, easing traffic congestion is a major challenge, said Veronica Beyer, spokeswoman with the Texas Department of Transportation.
The highway project, which refurbished and raised the speed limit of the southern 40 miles of Highway 130, was a way to unclog interstates between Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, she said.
"Texans no longer need to sit in traffic when driving through Central Texas," Beyer said. "We are providing drivers an option for a more efficient and less congested roadway to San Antonio."
The highway project also shines a spotlight on public-private partnerships for infrastructure projects, a growing trend in the country.
With federal and state dollars to rebuild highways and bridges dwindling, more states are turning to private companies to fund the projects in exchange for toll revenue or other payouts, said Joshua Schank, president and CEO of the non-partisan Eno Center for Transportation.
The arrangement has benefited cities and states lacking the money to fix aging infrastructure, from toll roads in Chicago to Virginia highways, he said.
But the partnerships are also changing the way public highways operate, Schank said. Negotiated contracts between private companies and states often dictate the rules of that road, he said.
"These roads being built have different rules," Schank said. "That's absolutely part of the risk when you start using private companies for your infrastructure."
For the Highway 130 project, Texas received $25 million as part of the initial contract with the Cintra-Zachery consortium and an additional $100 million for raising the road's limit to 85 mph, Beyer said.
The private consortium will manage the road and initially receive about 95% of toll revenues. The result: a newly paved highway with wide shoulders and few exits to slow traffic at little to no cost to taxpayers.
"It's a very straight, very flat road," Bowman said. "It was built to be able to handle that speed."
One new satisfied customer is Tyler Buchanan, who runs a family owned mobile home dealership in Mustang Ridge, just off the highway. The new highway shaves nearly an hour off his morning commute from Red Rock to Mustang Ridge, he said.
"We love it," Buchanan said. "If I had to fight I-35 traffic every day, it'll be a mess."
Others were less impressed. Charles Stewart, who drives a cement mixer for a local company, said tolls for his mixer could reach nearly $50 for a roundtrip journey on the full length of the highway. Instead, he takes service roads and back highways to skirt the new highway and get to jobs.
"Way too high," Stewart said of the tolls. "We just take the long way around."
Despite having the opportunity to legally go faster than other motorists in the country, drivers so far on Highway 130 have been mostly keeping their speeds under 85 mph, Mustang Ridge Police Chief Michael Gonzales said.
Most are driving at around 70 mph to 75 mph, he said. "They might still be wary of traveling that fast," Gonzales said.
The widened highway actually feels safer than the narrower four-lane roadway that was there before, he said. Accidents, which averaged four to five a month before the new highway was built, have gone done considerably, Gonzales said.
The highway's only accident since opening, however, proved fatal. At around 2 p.m. on Nov. 11, a Chevy Tahoe SUV traveling southbound on the highway slammed into a Honda attempting to enter the highway, Gonzales said. The owner of the Honda, Martha Melinda Harris, 60, died from her injuries.
Speed may not have played a significant role in the crash, he said. "Even traveling at 65 mph, I don't think the outcome would have been any different," Gonzales said. "It was a dead-on, T-bone hit."
But the fact that the accident didn't stir a louder outcry points to a disturbing trend in this country, said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association. States will continue raising their limits as long as no one complains, he said.
"There's no outrage over high-speed accidents the way there is for drunk-driving fatalities," Adkins said. "It's a cultural battle we're losing."
(Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY)