LOCKHART, Texas — For drivers who feel the need for speed, Wednesday is a big day in Texas.
A new 40-mile stretch of Texas 130 toll road bypassing Austin's east side will open with an 85-mph speed limit -- highest in the United States.
"I think people will routinely pass me going 100. Regardless of the speed limit, there's always going to be people who want to go past it," said Jeff Gibeaux, a civil engineer in Lockhart who plans to take the high-speed road to Austin on occasion.
While most states have raised speed limits gradually in recent years, Texas is going at it full throttle.
Since 2002, the Texas Department of Transportation -- at the urging of state lawmakers -- has raised the speed limit to 75 or 80 mph on nearly 6,507 miles of road.
Most of the increases have occurred since 2011, when a new state law broadened which roads qualified for higher speeds.
The speeds are now posted not only in rural areas but also on major roads such as Interstate 20 and Interstate 35 just outside Dallas-Fort Worth and other major metro areas.
On about 1 in 12 miles of Texas roadway -- including interstates, small highways and farm-to-market roads -- motorists may now legally travel at speeds once considered excessive and dangerous.
Safety experts in the U.S. and Europe warn that fatalities and injury accidents are likely to rise. Texas' fatality rate is already higher than the national average, with 3,015 people killed on roads in 2011.
"You need to take measures to counteract an anticipated increase in deaths," said Veronique Feypell de la Beaumelle, an analyst with the International Transport Forum, which publishes a road safety annual report with crash data from the U.S. and 31 other countries.
But state officials say they don't necessarily expect more carnage. On the contrary, they point to statistics showing that fatalities are declining along some West Texas highways that were the first to get higher limits.
They say their methods of studying a road before raising a speed limit are scientifically sound, although they are applied differently in various parts of the state.
Less certain is whether motorists have the proper training, or the self-discipline, to drive safely on a high-speed road. State officials say they are developing ways to promote better driving habits.
Last week, the Transportation Department began installing 3,400 signs reading "Left lane for passing only" on highways with a speed limit of 75 mph or more. The same message was flashed on more than 700 electronic highway signs statewide.
"We're going to have to teach Texans how to drive these safer speeds," said Bill Meadows of Fort Worth, a Texas Transportation Commission member.
Meanwhile, as lawmakers encourage the Transportation Department to raise speed limits in one county after another, researchers at organizations such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety are taking issue with some of the state's guiding principles for determining when to raise a speed limit.
State officials have said they generally believe that motorists will drive at a comfortable speed, regardless of the posted limit, so it's important to set limits near the thresholds at which people are already traveling. But that philosophy can conflict with a belief held by critics who say drivers go whatever speed they think they can get away with and often exceed posted speeds because they perceive them to be conservative.
Economics are a factor, too.
The new section of Texas 130 toll road is being built by a private developer known as State Highway 130 Concession Co. Llc., which is led by the U.S. arm of Spain-based Cintra. Texas 130 is part of the Austin area's Central Texas Turnpike System.
The developer is spending $1.4 billion on the project for the right to collect tolls through Nov. 11, 2062. To protect its investment, the group is paying Texas an extra $100 million in return for setting an 85-mph limit, according to the contract.
The idea is to attract more motorists to the road with the promise of higher speeds, which in turn generates more toll revenue.
State law requires the Transportation Department to perform a speed study before raising the limit on a stretch of road but lets the agency decide how to go about it.
Two of the agency's top safety officials demonstrated the process for the Star-Telegram this month on a stretch of Texas 130 that is already open north of Austin. There, the limit was raised to 80 mph this year, and the road could be a candidate for 85 mph in the near future, they said.
The first step in the speed study was for the pair of state employees to conduct a "trial run" of the 19-mile stretch. Darren McDaniel, a speed zone engineer for the department's Austin district, was given the task of driving the length of the road in a department pickup. Carol Rawson, director of the state's traffic operations division, sat in a passenger seat and took notes on McDaniel's speed.
McDaniel purposefully avoided looking at his speedometer and focused instead on driving at a speed he felt comfortable with -- most of the time, he was going 80 to 82 mph.
The two were helped in their work by a couple of gadgets installed in the truck: a digital instrument to help Rawson track the speed without having to continuously look at the dashboard and an inclinometer mounted on the dash that was programmed to sound an alarm if the truck took a curve with too much gravitational force.
The duo also took notes on factors such as visibility on the road and the amount of clear space available on the shoulders and in the median, in case a motorist has to take evasive action.
Texas highways are typically designed to accommodate speeds of at least 70 mph -- the state's default limit until a speed study can be conducted, six months or more after a road opens to the public.
But roads can be designed for higher or lower speeds.
For example, a small portion of the planned Chisholm Trail Parkway in southwest Fort Worth is being designed for 50 mph to ensure that traffic goes relatively slowly through some old neighborhoods.
And, as with the Texas 130 extension, roads can be designed to accommodate 85-mph limits from their first day open to traffic.
The next step in the speed study was taking a sample of at least 125 randomly selected cars to determine how fast people are traveling on the road -- typically known as an 85th percentile test.
McDaniel and Rawson parked their truck on an overpass in Pflugerville near Austin and, using a laser gun like what police use to issue traffic tickets, they determined that 85 percent of the vehicles on this stretch of Texas 130 were traveling 83 mph or less.
As a result, the road was a candidate for an 80- or 85-mph speed limit, they said.
The idea is to set a speed limit so that 85 percent of motorists are obeying the law. Rawson said it's a commonly accepted standard in traffic-engineering circles that 85 percent of drivers are traveling at a safe, comfortable speed -- regardless of the posted limit.
"Most people drive what's safe and prudent, because we know people aren't wanting to hurt themselves," she said.
"They're not wanting to get into a crash. Most importantly, they want to get where they're going, so generally they're going to drive a speed that's reasonable, and that's what we're looking for."
'A moving target'
A top official at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research organization that tracks collision data throughout the U.S., said placing so much weight on the 85th percentile standard is leading states such as Texas to raise speed limits beyond reasonable levels.
"The 85th percentile is a moving target," institute President Adrian Lund said. "People do pay attention to the speed limit: They use it as a guideline and figure out how much faster they can go without getting a ticket. Gradually, you end up with the same number of people exceeding the speed limit that you had before. There's an assumption that the government is always conservative, so if 85 is the speed limit, then 90 and 95 must be safe, right?"
Higher speed limits could hit Texans in the pocketbook, too. If accidents increase, the cost of auto insurance will go up, David Snyder, vice president of the American Insurance Association predicted in a 2011 column that ran in the Star-Telegram.
Texas' fatality rate is already higher than the national average, and Texans pay some of the highest insurance rates.
In April 2011, a state House transportation committee approved a bill that gave the Transportation Department power to raise the speed limit to 75, 80 or 85 mph on thousands of miles of the highway system, as long as a speed study was conducted on at least one place in each segment of roadway.
The bill, which eventually became law, also eliminated lower speed limits for trucks and for all traffic at night.
The lone vote against the bill was from Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas.
"When you've got as many inexperienced drivers on our highways as we do, the last thing you want is people going 75, 80, 85 mph," Davis said this month in an interview. "I thought the whole notion of raising the speed limit that high was crazy."
The bill passed without comment, although Davis said it was clear in the Capitol hallways that the measure had plenty of support -- particularly among rural lawmakers who were hearing from constituents that they wanted to legally drive faster.
"It probably started with the rural representatives," Davis said. "But these speed limits are in urban centers, too."
Support for higher speeds tends to be particularly strong in cities that stand to benefit economically from the lure of traffic, although projects such as the Texas 130 extension can also brew controversy.
About 30 miles southeast of Austin, the new Texas 130 extension leads to Lockhart, a city of about 13,000 that is known for its barbecue joints.
Residents aren't too happy that the speed limit on the frontage roads of U.S. 183 running parallel to the Texas 130 extension has been lowered from 65 to 55 mph.
State officials have said the lower limit is needed because commercial development is springing up along the frontage roads, creating a safety issue for motorists pulling in and out of driveways.
But many residents say the real motivation is to force traffic onto the 85-mph toll road.
And on the toll road, there is little opposition to the 85-mph limit.
"We're thrilled about it," said Wendy Ramsey, owner of Wendy R Gift Shop on the town square. She regularly drives 80 mph on the portion of Texas 130 that's already open and, beginning Wednesday, she fully expects to drive 85 mph on the new part of the toll road.
"There's so few cars on 130 at this point," she said, "that right now it seems safe."