State Highway

Police said they are still investigating the first fatal accident to occur on the new stretch of State Highway 130 that, at 85 miles per hour, has the highest speed limit in the nation.

Police said an accident occurred Sunday on the highway around 2 p.m. in Mustang Ridge, roughly 20 miles south of Austin.

The driver of a Honda Civic, Martha Harris, 60, of Lockhart, was killed after colliding with a Chevy Tahoe in the southbound lanes of the highway. Harris had just entered onto the road. The driver and passenger of the Chevy Tahoe suffered minor injuries.

A 41-mile stretch of the highway that runs from Mustang Ridge to Interstate Highway 10 in Seguin opened Oct. 24, connecting the Austin and San Antonio areas.

Police said the accident occurred on the section of the highway with an 85 mile per hour speed limit, but they do not know how fast the drivers were going or if the speed limit was a contributing factor to the accident.

Police said one safety issue that has arisen with the new stretch of highway is the presence of feral hogs and other animals on the roadway. They said that was not a contributing factor to this accident. 

Tolling began on the newly opened stretch of the road Sunday. No toll was implemented at first to allow drivers the chance to try out the new roadway. Tolls can only be paid through the TxTag program or by mail. The ride on the new section of the road is $4.23 by TxTag and $5.63 by mail for noncommercial vehicles without trailers.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, rural areas of Texas and Utah contain the nation’s roads with the second-highest speed limits at 80 miles per hour.

Sixteen states have roadways with a speed limit of 75 miles per hour, 36 with a speed limit of at least 70 miles per hour and all states except Hawaii have roads with a speed limit of at least 65 miles per hour. The highest speed limit in Hawaii is 60 miles per hour.

Cars line up at the intersection of East Oltorf and I-35 Frontage Road Saturday afternoon. Last week the Texas Department of Transportation named the stretch of I-35 from State Highway 71 to U.S. Highway 183 the fourth most congested roadway in the state.

Photo Credit: Julia Bunch | Daily Texan Staff

Interstate Highway 35 from State Highway 71 to U.S. Highway 183 is the fourth-most congested roadway in the state, according to a Texas Department of Transportation list released last week.

Because of Austin’s economic growth and population increase, roadways are growing increasingly congested during peak commuter hours despite attempts to fund infrastructure improvements, according to the city of Austin’s website.

“With a combination of the business district, downtown area, double deck split, hospitals and UT, there is a lot of entering and exiting traffic in that area,” said John Hurt, Austin spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the upper deck on the stretch of I-35 entering downtown Austin was built to alleviate traffic, Hurt said. However, since the 1970s the downtown area has become busier and more crowded and new lanes cannot keep up with increased congestion.

“The possibility of adding lanes is not good,” said Hurt. “It’s a temporary fix.”

In the last four to five years, traffic on that section of I-35 has not gotten dramatically worse, said Tim Lomax, research engineer for the Texas Transportation Institute. He said this has been a result of the ongoing recession.

“Congestion has actually dropped 10 to 15 percent, reflecting the economy of the past three to four years,” Lomax said. “However, on that section of the road, a decent economy combined with an increase in population is bound to produce traffic congestion that is still worse than average.”

For the every-day commuter, this means skyrocketing gasoline consumption, he said.

“In 2009, the average Austin commuter spent an extra $900 dollars a year in gas and travel time,” Lomax said. “If you think about the commuters on that section of 35, they’ve spent at least $1,100 just sitting in traffic. It boils down to about an extra $100 a month.”

However, the increased spending on fuel because of bad traffic is not the only cost to society, said engineering professor Kara Kockelman.

“The main cost to society lies in lost time [or higher crash severities, at high speeds], rather than extra fuel consumed,” Kockelman said.

A drastic change will require effort from many groups, including the city of Austin, the Capital Area Metro Planning Organization, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority and others, said Kockelman. While many Austin residents would not appreciate price increases, Kockelman said tolling and road pricing may be the best option for TxDOT at the moment.

TxDOT added state Highway 130 over the last decade in hopes to revive pressure from I-35, Kockelman said, but Highway 130 has not yet been successful at reducing congestion on I-35.

“It is rather new, in a largely undeveloped setting, and presumably too far away and tolled too heavily to attract much traffic at this early stage,” Kockelman said. “But it does offer a bypass option for those with long trips. Shorter trips remain very much attracted to the highly congested I-35 corridor through and near downtown Austin.”

Some commuter students of UT have also experienced the brute of peak I-35 traffic congestion. Journalism sophomore Rachel Knapp said she spent last semester commuting to UT and struggled to make it to campus in the face of the high congestion.

“I live in Round Rock, which is only a 30-minute drive from here on I-35,” Knapp said. “But because I had 8 a.m. classes every morning, I would have to leave at 6:30 every morning to beat the traffic and make it to class.”