Monday, July 10, 2006

“Safety is for sale in Texas”

Money could create need for speed on Texas 130

Contract for southern segment increases state revenue if speed limit goes to 80 mph and beyond.

July 10, 2006

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

The higher the speed limit, the more money the state would collect on Texas 130's southern 40 miles under the contract recently signed with road developer Cintra-Zachry.

A highway safety advocate says that means "safety's for sale in Texas." No, the state's turnpike director says, the provisions in that contract are just a recognition that the Legislature has already allowed an 85 mph speed limit on a road that likely will become a part of the Trans-Texas Corridor. With a higher allowable speed, logic dictates that more drivers would choose the toll road as an alternative to Interstate 35. And more vehicles equal more toll revenue, boosting Cintra-Zachry's income.

Under that scenario, the state would be irresponsible if it did not try to recoup more of that revenue for taxpayers, said Phil Russell, director of the Texas Department of Transportation's turnpike division. As for the safety questions raised by that potential higher speed, Russell said the agency is working on design standards for Trans-Texas Corridor roads that would make them as safe at 85 miles per hour as existing interstates are at 70 mph.

"Whatever the speed limit is, we're going to make sure our design standards can accommodate it," Russell said today.

Judie Stone, president of the Washington-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, doesn't buy it.

"I just think it's a violation of public health responsibilities on the part of the state," Stone said. "It's the first time I've ever heard of anything like that. Following on the heels of raising the speed limit to 80 on some segments of the interstates, it's very disturbing.

"It sounds like safety's for sale in Texas."

Last month, the state's Department of Transportation changed some speed limits on West Texas interstates to 80 mph.

None of this applies to the northerly 49 miles of Texas 130 toll road being built from Georgetown to south of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, some of which is due to open in December. The state is building and will operate that toll road, not Cintra-Zachry. And it was designed several years ago, long before the Trans-Texas Corridor and its 85 mph limit was contemplated. Russell said that part will open with a 70 mph speed limit.

Not so with the southern 40 miles from Mustang Ridge to Interstate 10 at Seguin. The state last month signed a thousand-plus-page contract with Cintra-Zachry, a Spanish-American partnership, for the company to build the four-lane road at an estimated cost of $1.3 billion and operate it for 50 years.

The contract contemplates that Cintra-Zachry would pay the state an up-front concession fee of $25 million and 4.65 percent of the toll revenue until total revenue reaches certain thresholds in any given year. Then the portion for the state would grow to 9.3 percent until a second revenue threshold, jumping to 50 percent after that.

But that's only if the speed limit is 70 mph.

The contract says that if the speed limit is 80 mph, the upfront payment would jump to $92 million. At 85 mph, the concession payment would be $125 million.

Or the state could choose, rather than taking more up front, to collect higher percentages of the toll revenue in the future. The higher speed limits would have to be imposed within the road's first six months of operation for the state to get the extra money. The road is expected to open by 2012.

Although Cintra-Zachry will operate the road, the speed limits will be controlled by the state. The Texas Transportation Commission, appointed by the governor, sets those limits, but only within upper limits set by the Legislature.

In 2003, when the Legislature passed a 300-page bill creating the legal framework for the Trans-Texas Corridor (and other toll road activities), it said that proposed 4,000-mile system of toll roads could have speeds up to 85 mph.

The idea is that the cross-state roads would be more lightly traveled than the parallel, toll-free interstates and thus could accommodate the higher speeds. And the faster travel would be the carrot drawing paying customers.

At this point, pending an environmental review that could take two to three more years, Texas 130 is not a part of the Trans-Texas Corridor. But it falls within a 10-mile-wide study area in the draft environmental document, and most people familiar with the situation assume that it eventually will become a corridor road.

When that occurs, it would be up to the transportation commission to decide if 85 mph will be the limit. Despite the lure of the extra money, Stone said she hopes that commissioners will look at the demonstrated role speed plays in highway deaths and turn down the windfall.

"If people in the decision-making positions believe there aren't going to be consequences for people going that fast, on any road," Stone said, "they're wrong."; 445-3698

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