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September 17, 2012 6:30 AM, EDT

ATA Opposes Texas’ Decision to Allow 85 MPH Speed Limit

By Michele Fuetsch, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the Sept. 17 print edition of Transport Topics.

American Trucking Associations has urged Texas to reverse its decision set a speed limit of 85 miles an hour — the fastest in the nation — for cars and trucks on a soon-to-open portion of a toll road between Austin and San Antonio.

“At the end of the day, excessive speed is the greatest threat to highway safety,” ATA President Bill Graves said last week, “and by giving motorists carte blanche to put the pedal to the metal, Texas is raising the risk of more crashes, as well as more severe crashes.”

Under the terms of a contract with a development consortium, Texas received $100 million for allowing the 85 mph limit.

The Texas Transportation Commission on Aug. 30 approved the speed limit for a 41-mile portion of State Highway 130 between Mustang Ridge south of Austin and the town of Sequin, east of San Antonio.

Texas owns the entire 91-mile toll road, but the southern half is being completed by a private development consortium that will operate that portion.

The 85-mph limit is the highest in the United States, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research group.

“Safety is our top priority, and tests have shown the designated speed is a safe one,” said Kelli Petras Reyna, spokeswoman for the transportation commission and the Texas Department of Transportation.

She said the toll road will reduce congestion on the Austin/San Antonio corridor by providing an alternate route for traveling through the state.

In his statement, Graves cautioned other states against following what ATA called the “dangerous example” set by Texas.

“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,” Graves said in a Sept. 10 statement. “I would hope that Texas will quickly see the error in its policy and reverse course.”

On the northern part of the toll road, vehicles are allowed to travel 80 mph.

The development consortium, called the State Highway 130 Concession Co., will set the toll rates for the four-lane highway, also known as the Pickle Parkway, before it opens, company spokesman Chris Lippincott said.

The development company is a joint venture between Zachry American Infrastructure and Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte S.A.

For safety reasons, a growing number of truck fleets govern their vehicles’ engines to limit speed, Graves said. ATA is on record as supporting a maximum speed limit of 65 mph for all vehicles.

In some states, truck and car speed limits differ, but ATA opposes split speeds, arguing that uniform limits are safer for all drivers.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association is not opposing the 85-mph limit but questioned whether the state was helping boost developer profits, said spokeswoman Norita Taylor.

Earlier this year, the state lowered the speed limit to 55 mph from 65 mph on U.S. 183, the highway that runs alongside the toll road.

“This is a troubling example of the conflicts that can be created when highways become for-profit entities,” said Todd Spencer, OOIDA’s executive vice president.

“The controversy of having 85-mph and 55-mph speed limits on those routes doesn’t appear to be done to enhance transportation for highway users,” Spencer said. “It looks like the state is working in collusion with the [public-private partnership] to maximize its revenue.”

Reyna, the DOT spokeswoman, denied that the speed limit for U.S. 183 was related to the toll road.

U.S. 183 is an older highway, which was recently reconstructed, and an “interim” study determined that the safest speed is 55 mph, she said. Under state law, when a highway is opened or reopened after construction, a safe speed study must be done.

Texas’ “obvious attempt” to generate more traffic and greater toll revenue at the public’s expense “highlights the trade-offs associated with relying too much on the private sector to finance highways,” Graves said.

Reyna declined to directly address Graves’ call to reverse the 85-mph limit on the toll road but said: “We understand their concerns, but we still have full confidence in the safety of that roadway.”

Lippincott, the SH 130 company spokesman, also declined to comment on the ATA-Graves statement but said the road is safe for 85 mph.

“We think we’ll provide a safe and reliable route between Austin and San Antonio for four-wheelers, 18-wheelers and other responsible drivers,” Lippincott said.