Texas opens 85-mph highway near Austin
The privately funded toll road is both controversial and hugely appealing to commuters.
Texas opened the toll gates today on a new stretch of highway with the nation's highest-ever speed limits, a controversial move that has sparked safety concerns as it promises to shorten commutes.
The 85-mph speed limit on this 41-mile segment extends a portion of state highway that already allows 80 mph just outside Austin. The new $1.3 billion road -- entirely financed and built by a private Spanish company, Cintra -- travels farther south through more rural towns between Austin and San Antonio.
The state maintains that 85 mph is a safe limit and that it stands to benefit taxpayers from the privatized road. Cintra, which has a 50-year contract to maintain the highway, will pay the Texas Department of Transportation $100 million in toll revenue sharing, an amount that was determined based on the highway's maximum speed limit. While regular drivers will pay roughly $6.17 to drive the extension's entire length, truckers -- some of whom are concerned that 85-mph speeds would be dangerous -- will need to cough up four times that amount. The tolls don't go into effect until Nov. 11.
High speeds aren't the only concern. Local towns on Route 183, a parallel route off the highway, criticized the state for lowering the route's speed limit from 65 mph to 55 mph in an apparent effort to encourage drivers to use the faster toll road. That decision is under appeal. The state's ties with Cintra have also come under fire since 2005, when the company was selected to build the Trans-Texas Corridor, a massive highway project that would have constructed 4,000 miles of toll roads. It was later rejected by the federal government.
Concerns aside, Texas -- like many other states in the Southwest and rural North that have 75-mph and 80-mph limits -- hasn't seen major highway problems with considerably higher speeds. With the state's warmer climates, straighter roads and less-populated areas, 85 could easily feel like 65 --- but only if drivers are smart enough to maintain their cars and refrain from distraction, which we know isn't easy.