I shift into fifth gear and hit 70 mph as I merge onto the State Highway 130 toll road east of Austin. The speed limit on this road is 80 mph, so that's where I stop accelerating until a Chevy Tahoe packed with children passes me in the left lane, probably doing around 90. Then I decide to push the accelerator a bit more and let my speedometer creep up to 85.
At this moment, I am breaking Texas law. That won't be the case in November, when a new section of SH 130 opens up with an 85 mph speed limit — the fastest in the Western Hemisphere, according to some reports.
Is an 85 mph speed limit unbelievably awesome? Maybe, but I'm not so sure it's such a big deal.
This week, the Texas Department of Transportation approved an 85 mph speed limit for a 40-mile stretch of the SH 130 toll road from Austin to Seguin, which is just north of San Antonio. As it is now, SH 130 dumps you onto Interstate 35 near Buda.
First, I think I should give you a bit of a primer about speed in Texas. Here in the Lone Star State, speed limits are generally viewed as guidelines or helpful suggestions rather than laws. Texans have a thing for speed, something I attribute to our wide-open spaces, long stretches of highways, and general love of freedom. Down here, we kind of drive as fast as we want, even if the police and state troopers aren't cool with that.
On Interstate 35 between Austin and San Antonio, no one actually ever goes only the official speed limit of 70. We have a name for people who do: assholes. Expect to do at least 80 to keep up with traffic and still get passed on the right occasionally.
Speed, it seems, is one of the few things our state legislators can agree on. Last year lawmakers voted to raise the speed limit to 75 on rural highways. In recent years they approved nearly 600 miles of highway where the speed limit is 80, mainly out in desert-y West Texas.
I should note before I proceed that I'm by no means a slow driver. On the highways I usually go about 80, but I let faster drivers pass me if they want. I own a radar detector and have had more than a few speeding tickets in my life. I was not looking to get one on that toll road.
So while I'm not officially allowed to do 85 on the toll road yet, I gave it a try anyway for a bit, meticulously checking my radar detector and scanning for police. What was it like? As much as I would like to come here and tell you that driving 85 on the highway was SO AWESOME!!1!!, honestly, 85 kind of feels like speeding to me. It's kind of amazing that the state is actually going to sanction this. Will I be able to do it without checking for cops every three seconds? That's going to be a hard habit to break.
Even as I went 85, staying the left lane to test out the new speed limit, it didn't stop a 300C and a big truck behind it from getting right up on my bumper until I moved to the right (as all drivers should do) and let them pass at more than 90.
And that brings me to my general lack of enthusiasm with the 85 mph speed limit: based on how people drive already, it's not going to limit anything. It's just going to give people more of an excuse to go 95 or 100 in their massive SUVs.
I'd prefer they had an SUV/Giant Truck/Minivan speed limit and a Sports Car speed limit, but considering they call a Tacoma a sports car around here maybe that would help much, either.
Taking the toll road does have its advantages. I have to say that it beat the hell out of driving on I-35 through perpetually congested downtown Austin, and it's also probably your best bet for getting to the Circuit of the Americas track when Formula 1 comes here in a few months.
So will this new insanely high speed limit draw unprecedented numbers of people to the toll road? I don't think so.
There are two ways to pay to use Texas' toll roads. You can pay monthly for what's called a "TxTag," or they can photograph you when you enter and they send you a bill in the mail. I did the latter this weekend. (I should note that I owe TxDOT a decent sum of money for other unpaid tolls; I either need to pay those soon, or leave in the middle of the night, change my name and start a new life somewhere else. Lord knows I've done that before.)
But here's the problem: the toll roads just aren't used all that much. The entire 20 minutes I was on SH 130, I saw only a handful of other cars in front of or behind me. It felt more like a rural highway in the middle of nowhere than a major thoroughfare. The difference between this and I-35 was stark.
My newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, wrote in April that there are about 988,000 cars with TxTags on them. That's awfully low when you consider that the state has more than 20 million registered vehicles.
To be fair, there's a lot of rural Texans who will never be near toll roads, or even city dwellers like me who don't need to use them. Still, most toll roads haven't met the projected number of drivers yet.
When this does get a lot of use (like for the F1 race) it could be so congested you'll never even get close to 85.
To sum up: there aren't enough toll road users for this to make a big impact, and it will only free people up to drive at crazier speed than they can already handle. The Autobahn works because it's full of Germans. A Texas Autobahn will be full of Texans, and that thought terrifies me just a bit. Sure, many Texans are legendary drivers, but they're not the ones I'm worried about. It's the ones in lifted Tundras who think they're A.J. Foyt when they're really as high as A.J. Allmendinger.
I can handle the speed, but can anyone else?