in Houston, Texas
Is speed limit of 85 mph on SH 130 a money-safety tradeoff?
Tuesday, Sep 11, 2012, 03:07PM CST
By Steve Miller
race

You can drive 85 on a section of State Highway 130 in South Texas, thanks to an agreement between the private builder and the state.

In exchange for the speed limit, SH 130 Concession Co., a consortium of builders that agreed in 2007 to build the toll road, agreed to pay the state $100 million. The speed limit was allowed by legislation passed in 2011 carried by state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham.

An analysis of the action at the time by the state House Research Organization pointed out that opponents of the proposed higher speed limit say the action “would go too far by authorizing the nation’s highest posted speed of 85 mph. While the rate of collisions may not increase at higher average speeds, the average severity of crashes certainly does.

“With a posted speed of 85 mph, many motorists would travel 90 mph or even 95 mph. Standard tires are rated for long-term travel only at 80 mph or less. Special tires, such as those on racing cars and law enforcement vehicles, are required for safe travel at those speeds for longer distances. Most people also are not accustomed to driving at such high speeds, which complicates any estimation of the safety risks involved in such a high posted speed limit.”

It also pointed out a perceived pay-to-play element in the eyes of some:

“The authority added by the committee substitute to allow an 85 mph speed limit could be a boon for a private toll road in central Texas, SH 130 — the only highway in Texas currently engineered to support a speed of 85 mph.

“SH 130 segments 5 and 6 near Lockhart are privately operated tollways developed by Cintra [of which SH 130 Consortium is a subsidiary].  A provision in the concessions agreement between TxDOT and Cintra to develop portions of SH 130 states that if TxDOT authorizes an 85 mph speed limit within a certain timeframe, the agency will be entitled to an additional payment or a greater share of toll revenue. Currently, the maximum speed on SH 130 can be set no higher than 70 mph.”

A good column that addresses both points of concern is here.

The analysis said the Texas Transportation Commission would only authorize an 85 mph speed limit after “extensive consideration.” The commission gave the proposal that extensive consideration on Aug. 30 and put its stamp of approval on the higher speed.

Madrid-based Cintra has built highways and toll roads in six countries, according to its Web site, including the LBJ Expressway in Dallas and the concession deal for the Chicago Skyway.

The original Texas deal was approved by the former executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation, Michael Behrens, who championed public-private partnerships during his tenure from 2001 to 2007.

Behrens was as of earlier this year the director of national transportation programs at the Michael Baker Corporation.

A few years before his hire, the corporation received three lucrative contracts for work in Texas, including a study related to the now-defunct Trans-Texas Corridor.

After Behrens’ hire, the corporation received another state contract. The deal required the commission to bypass a state law aimed at preventing agencies from doing business with firms that employ former state department heads. The law requires a cooling-off period of four years after a department head leaves the state. Getting around the rule is straightforward: An agency can take an open-session vote on the contract and send notice to the Legislative Budget Board.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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