Investigations

SH 130 is the fastest highway in the nation. It's also deadly

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Officers told Albert Sanchez he didn’t want to go anywhere near the scene of a fatal accident on State Highway 130.

Sanchez saw pictures of the wreck on the news earlier that day and suspected a worn tire combined with the highway’s 85 miles per hour speed limit contributed to the crash. Authorities later confirmed a blowout caused the driver to lose control.

The SUV was on its roof when first responders arrived to the scene in August 2015. Five of Sanchez’s family members, including a 4- and a 14-year-old, died on SH 130, the fastest highway in the nation.

“Speed was absolutely a factor,” Sanchez said. “They had way better chances of still being here today had they not been going that fast.”

$100 million for 85 mph

At least 37 people have died on the 80 and 85 mph portions of SH 130, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. Sixteen of those deaths were on the 85 mph section, which opened in 2012.

 

Internal TxDOT emails

KXAN filed an open records request for internal communications about the 85 mph speed limit and $100 million incentive. TxDOT provided 16 emails from 2012, many dealing with questions about the speed, and even on how the $100 million payment would be spent.

The agency tried to keep some emails from the public, claiming an “attorney-client” exemption. The Texas Attorney General’s Office said TxDOT could withhold those emails. The agency released five heavily-redacted emails to KXAN.

In one of those emails, dated Sept. 11, 2012, Bill Meadows, the chairman of Dallas-area insurance company Hub International, wrote, “Let’s look at a couple of ways to educate the driving public in Texas how to safely operate vehicles on our higher speed facilities in the state.” TxDOT redacted the rest of that email.

 

Although the state had the option of opening the toll road at a lower speed – 80 or 70 miles per hour – TxDOT took advantage of a $100 million payment the private toll road company promised in exchange for an 85 mph speed limit. Details of the $100 million payment were tucked inside a lengthy contract, signed years before the highway opened.

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said it was a contract TxDOT fought to keep secret in 2011.

She told KXAN that even after lawmakers sent open records requests and reached out to the Texas Attorney General’s office, “the legislature couldn’t even get their hands (on a copy) to read the contract.”

"We were at, what I feel like, a very bad time with that agency (TxDOT) who seemed to be somewhat rogue in doing their own thing," she said. “I don't believe we were doing the right thing in signing these private equity contracts."

The higher speed limit incentivized in the contract was supposed to encourage more drivers to take SH 130, thus generating more toll revenue and, perhaps, alleviating some of the traffic plaguing Austin.

But, six years after that private portion opened, a KXAN investigation reveals it may not have been worth it. The speed limit, along with problematic driver behavior, has contributed to accidents on the toll road. Meanwhile, lower-than-forecast traffic projections in drivers caused the private operator to file for bankruptcy.

“Lower speeds seem to be more conducive for safety,” said Dr. Randy Machemehl, a professor at the University of Texas’ Department of Civil Engineering. “They may not be more conducive for saving time or more conducive for attracting toll users, but nevertheless, one would have a very hard time arguing that one is safer at 85 than at 70 or 60.” 

Faulty traffic projections

As the Central Texas population increased, officials hoped SH 130 would be Austin’s solution to congestion on Interstate 35.

Ahead of SH 130's opening, TxDOT reported that then-Gov. Rick Perry called the transportation commissioners "true visionaries" for using "innovative financing" for the project. The privately-operated highway would come at practically no cost to local taxpayers, although a federal taxpayer loan of $500,000 was used to build the highway.

The private company, a joint venture between Spanish-based Cintra and the San Antonio-based construction company Zachry, said it expected to make back millions of dollars in investments based on tolls collected over the years. 

It didn’t. A U.S. Department of Transportation report from December 2016 shows revenue was 60 percent lower than the initial forecasts.

Within a few years of opening, the private company was at risk of defaulting on its loans and SH 130 Concession Company filed for bankruptcy in 2016. 

A higher speed limit and nearly 400 signs along I-35 encouraging drivers to use SH 130 instead couldn’t lure drivers who still preferred taking congested, but free, I-35, according to a U.S. DOT report.

“The original traffic projections were wildly overstated. The company did a couple of additional traffic projections and still missed,” current SH 130 Concession Company CEO Andy Bailey told KXAN.

Bailey joined the company after the bankruptcy filings.

Toll discounts for commercial vehicles add to the problem

TxDOT also offered millions of dollars in toll discounts to commercial vehicles to help divert traffic from I-35 to SH 130. But, a KXAN investigation shows that created a public safety problem since commercial vehicles drive at a slower rate with cars zipping past them at 85 mph, or sometimes, even higher.

“If you're driving 80,000 pounds, you don't want cars blowing by you at 85 miles an hour and you're going 65. That's approaching you too quickly,” said John Esparza, president of the Texas Trucking Association. “And that's the challenge with it. There's greater risk of safety when you have greater disparities of speed between any objects out there.”

The number of crashes on the 80 and 85 mph portions of SH 130 were up in 2013. They also increased by 44 percent from 2015 to 2016 and remained high in 2017 – all years TxDOT incentivized truckers to drive on the toll road. TxDOT says the majority of crashes occurred in the 80 mph section of the highway.

In 2013, TxDOT processed a total of $10.5 million in discount reimbursements for truckers driving SH 130 that year. The program picked up again in 2016 and 2017 when more than $11.3 million in discounts were given.

Esparza said it’s an industry standard for truck drivers to only travel between 65 and 70 miles per hour. Larger companies typically have devices on their commercial vehicles preventing them from exceeding those limits.

“You have to move lanes safely; you're checking your blind spot, there could be someone right on your tail,” Esparza said. “That's just a dangerous position to be in and when that closing speed is that quick, it's even more dangerous.”

Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, who has previously worked in the trucking industry, said although his constituents are happy SH 130 is easing some traffic on I-35, smaller vehicles need to be mindful of tractor-trailers traveling at much slower speeds.

“(If) you’re coming up on a truck going 20 to 25 miles an hour faster than (them), that could be a case where you just run into the back of it because it happens so quick,” he said.

Need for speed

Bailey doesn’t drive 85 miles per hour. 

But, as CEO of SH 130 Concession Company CEO, his company oversees the fastest highway in the nation, and he’s fine if other drivers do.

"I feel (TxDOT) did the study, they set the speed limit where they professionally believed it could be operated safely,” Bailey said. “I believe it can be, but it depends a lot on drivers to make it happen."

More than 1,000 people have been accused of speeding on SH 130 so far this year, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. That doesn’t include tickets from other agencies, like local police departments and sheriff’s offices who also stop violators traveling at unsafe speeds.

On average, drivers speeding in zones marked with an 85-mph sign travel about 98 mph, according to an analysis of DPS data. Last year, more than half of speed-limit violators on the toll road were clocked going 95 mph or faster, and 115 people were alleged to be driving 100 mph or faster on the toll road. Those DPS records showed one driver going 143 mph.

But, even when drivers are traveling at the posted 85 miles per hour speed limit, experts say that’s not necessarily the safest option either.

“If you ask, ‘Is a driver safer traveling 85 or traveling 70?,’ I think it's pretty obvious that safety is inversely proportional to speed,” Machemehl said. “The faster the driver's going, the less time the driver has time to react to unexpected things along the roadway.”

Mustang Ridge Police Chief Leonard Cantu said his agency tries to monitor SH 130 often, but resources don’t allow them to provide 24/7 patrol of the highway.

"We do have the fastest highway in the nation,” Cantu said. “So, when there are accidents out here, more than likely there’s going to be some injuries. That’s one thing that we see all the time at these speeds."

Path to 85 mph

Texas Transportation Commissioner Jeff Austin said he trusts the TxDOT engineers who deemed the highway safe. That’s why he voted to approve the 85 mph speed limit in August 2012.

KXAN asked Austin, the only sitting member who voted to put the 80 and 85 mph signs along SH 130, if the $100 million incentive impacted his vote.

“I am deeply offended by that question because one life in a fatality is way too much. Any road, period,” Austin told KXAN. “I resent to this state, to this agency, that question insinuating that we would take money to put a higher speed limit.”

Others, though, say revenue may have come before driver safety on SH 130, at least as it relates to the 85 mph speed limit.

Kolkhorst told KXAN increasing revenue was a motivating factor for lawmakers to keep part of a law that allows speed limits up to 85 miles per hour. She said revenue — like the $100 million incentive TxDOT agreed to — was seen as “vital” in 2011.

The Texas Transportation Commission first allowed an 85 mph speed in 2003 after lawmakers approved a bill supporting a 4,000-mile project known as the Trans-Texas Corridor. But, no 85 mph speed limits were set in Texas after that bill was passed.

TxDOT and the private company signed an agreement for SH 130 in 2007. In 2011, Kolkhorst filled a bill that ended plans for the Trans-Texas Corridor. But because the first leg of the corridor, SH 130, was already under construction, Kolkhorst said TxDOT urged her to keep the portion of the bill that allows the Texas Transportation Commission to set 85 mph speed limits.

“I very reluctantly put it in,” Kolkhorst told KXAN. “My original draft didn't have the 85 mile an hour speed limit, but there were also contractual issues that had already been signed with some of the incentives they received to keep it at 85 miles an hour."

SH 130 remains the only highway in Texas to utilize the ability to have an 85 mph speed limit.

Setting the limit

The Texas Transportation Commission approves dozens of speed limits across the state every month during its scheduled meetings.

But they didn’t do any extra safety studies, or take extra precautions, when approving the highest speed limit in the nation, according to records TxDOT provided to KXAN.

State law sets the maximum speed limit at 70 miles per hour, except in instances where the Texas Transportation Commission approves a higher limit based on engineering studies that say the speed is reasonable and safe.

The highway opened at 85 miles per hour in October 2012, months after an interim study said the highway was safe enough for those speeds.

However, that interim study didn’t include an 85th percentile measurement, which is an industry standard used to set speed limits. It measures the “speed at or below which 85 percent of people drive at any given location under good weather and visibility conditions,” according to TxDOT’s Procedures for Establishing Speed Zones.

About eight months after the toll road opened, commissioners approved a speed study with an 85th percentile test, indicating the 85 mph was appropriate based on TxDOT’s analysis.

But, because the toll road opened at 85 mph, instead of the standard 70 mph limit, it’s possible the results of the secondary study were impacted as drivers traveled at the posted speed.

“If a speed limit is 60 miles an hour, I'm not going to be driving 75. I may be really frustrated that the speed limit is 60 miles an hour and there's a wide-open highway, but I'm not going to risk getting a ticket going 75 miles an hour,” said Rep. Isaac, whose district is on the outskirts of SH 130.

In the six years since the speed limit was set at 85 mph, our investigation found TxDOT hasn’t conducted another speed study looking at whether it needs to be changed, despite having the authority to do so. 

“If crash data or enforcement issues are now indicating that these speeds are unsafe, then TxDOT should use their existing powers in law to conduct an investigation and reduce the speed if necessary,” Kolkhorst said.

Because TxDOT says most crashes were due to driving under the influence or poor driver behavior — and not speed — they said they have no reason to go out and reevaluate it.

“SH 130 was designed for high-speed travel and if drivers obey the speed limit and adhere to all other traffic laws … then we wouldn’t be seeing these crashes,” a TxDOT spokesperson said in a statement to KXAN.

But, the family of five people who died on SH 130 want to make sure people take extra precautions when traveling on the fastest highway in the nation.

“We think about it a lot,” Sanchez said. “You know, what could we have done differently to prevent that accident from happening."



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