Texas recently approved a speed limit of 85 miles per hour for a new 41-mile segment of a privately operated toll road, and is getting a big payout in return for the favor. That payment amounts to a cool $100 million dollars, $33 million more than they'd have gotten for setting a speed limit of 80 mph.
There's a lot not to like about this deal, and people are rightly questioning how this is going to affect safety on this stretch of freeway, part of State Highway 130. Specifically, the Wall Street Journal article refers to a 2009 report in the American Journal of Public Health, which "found that higher speed limits adopted by states in the wake of the 1995 repeal of federal speed-limit controls had led to a 3.2% increase in road fatalities, or an estimated 12,500 more deaths from 1995 to 2005." As one would expect, increased speeds lead to more severe injuries, and it's not unreasonable to imagine it might also lead to an increased number of accidents in absolute terms due to the added challenge of driving at higher speeds--especially in adverse conditions like inclement weather or in response to erratic drivers.
The safety issues associated with this speed are undoubtedly the most consequential and immediate problem with this change. But there's another problem here that is really troubling, and that's the reduction of the speed limit of an adjacent, parallel freeway. This parallel freeway, of course, does not have a toll; so, as long as congestion isn't too awful or people don't feel they can afford the toll road they'll go with the free option. That could be a problem for the private toll road operators, so the very same year (coincidentally I'm sure) we see a reduction of the speed limit for their competition, making the free road an even less attractive option.
This is where I really begin to question the commitment of the Texas Transportation Commission--and perhaps the Texas government more broadly--to the public good. Government builds roads to facilitate movement of people and goods which is obviously vital to a society and to an economy. To me and most other people there are endless examples of how government does a poor job of allocating these transportation resources effectively, but that's really a value judgment based on your feelings regarding choice, pollution, personal freedom, economics, sustainability, safety, and so on. Putting that aside, once the infrastructure investment has been made we should be using it rationally and efficiently, and that is absolutely not happening here.
In effect, the Texas government is stacking the deck in favor of these private operators at the expense of the rest of the motoring public. When we look at a toll road competing with a free road we can expect less traffic on the former, so it already wins on congestion, and even before the speed reduction it wins on speed. But just for the sake of throwing a little extra money into the coffers of the guys running the new freeway (and you can bet it's not being distributed among too many people), Texas is willing to sacrifice the safety and money of its citizens and squander the investment already made in the previous road by forcing it to be used sub-optimally. Texas actually gets a cut of the tolls as well, not just the $100 million, but if it's really all about more money for the state why not just put a small toll on the old road and leave the speed as it was before? At least then people aren't forced to make the disturbing choice of either a) congestion and/or low speeds, but free, or b) open roads with increased cost and an increased chance of death. For such a free-market state, you'd think they'd want to go with the more "everyone pays their own fair share" method of raising funds rather than this backdoor money-grab.
Most importantly, private competition should never come at the expense of the level of service offered by the government.
If we allowed multiple utility companies in a given region would the private competitor be allowed to pay off the government to limit the number of outlets at customers' homes? Do we start limiting the amount of medical care Medicare patients receive just because they've reached some arbitrary cap, and then force them to take their chances on the private market? (Oh, wait...)
I can't say for sure whether privately administered roads is something that should even exist or not, but when private companies get into the business of competing with basic government services there need to be serious safeguards put in place. This clearly hasn't happened in the case of Texas transportation, and it sets a very serious precedent.