Since Chisholm Trail Parkway opened more than a year ago, motorists have complained less about the tolls they have to pay and more about the 50 mph speed limit they’re expected to obey on the northernmost portion of the road.
But that restrictive speed limit may soon be relaxed.
Officials from Fort Worth, Cleburne and other area cities are talking behind the scenes about persuading the North Texas Tollway Authority to bump up the speed limit to a level more comparable to other area highways and tollways, including neighboring Interstate 35W.
“On I-35, you’ve got bumper-to-bumper traffic going 70 miles per hour,” said R.C. McFall, a former Johnson County commissioner who now serves on the tollway authority’s Contiguous County Advisory Committee. That committee represents the interests of communities such as Cleburne and Glen Rose that are on the outskirts of the Metroplex, but are now easier to get to because of toll projects.
“People just want more speed,” McFall said. “Everybody wants to move.”
Chisholm Trail Parkway, which opened in May 2014, is a 28-mile toll road with a strange design and speed configuration.
Down south in partly rural Johnson County, the road is only one lane in each direction, but motorists can legally go 70 mph. Heading north into Fort Worth, the road widens to two lanes in each direction, but the speed limit drops to 60 mph.
Then for the final four miles from roughly Arborlawn Drive to Interstate 30 near downtown Fort Worth, the road expands to three lanes in each direction — but the speed limit is reduced to 50 mph, creating what some motorists claim is a snail’s pace on their commute to work.
State troopers from the Texas Department of Public Safety as well as traffic officers from the Fort Worth Police Department patrol the 50 mph corridor vigorously. On any given day, it’s common to see at least one and sometimes two patrol cars on the roadside, with an officer writing a citation to a violator.
Fort Worth feel
Fort Worth city leaders are to blame for the low speed limit, although most observers would probably agree that their intentions were good. In the early 2000s, when the city, the tollway authority and Texas Department of Transportation were negotiating how to pay for and build the road, Fort Worth officials requested the lower speed limit as part of a broader aesthetics plan.
The idea was, if the road truly resembled a winding parkway, with trees and smartly-painted bridges, its presence would do less environmental harm to the decades-old neighborhoods in its path such as Overton Woods and Mistletoe Heights. City leaders said they wanted a road with a “Fort Worth feel.”
Their main concern in calling for a 50 mph speed limit was to minimize the noise of passing traffic.
The tollway authority was even authorized to collect an additional 4 cents per mile to offset the more expensive landscaping, as well as the projected loss of traffic from prospective motorists who would avoid the road because of the lower speed.
But a decade after all that planning, much has changed in Texas. Back then, most highways in populated parts of the state had speed limits of 60 mph or less. Now, many of those highways are 70, 75 or even 80 mph. (There is even an 85 mph toll road — the fastest legal speed in the United States — south of Austin.)
Chisholm Trail Parkway is now one of the slowest limited-access roadways in the state.
Designed for faster pace
Despite all that was said in the early 2000s about preserving the lower speed limit in older Fort Worth neighborhoods, it is legally possible — some might even say easy — to raise the speed limit, tollway authority officials said.
All it takes is for a team of traffic engineers to travel the road, observe their comfort levels at varying speeds, make note of any potential hazards and then conduct a study known as an “85th percentile test.”
In that test, engineers use a laser gun or similar technology to make note of how fast a sample of cars (usually several hundred) is traveling on a typical, dry-weather, midweek workday. The speed limit is then set at a level at which 85 percent of those travelers would be legal, rounded down to the nearest 5 mph.
In other words, if 85 percent of motorists is measured traveling at or below 66 mph, then the test would recommend setting the posted speed limit at 65 mph.
The tollway authority board of directors, which meets monthly at its Plano headquarters, would then have the final vote to determine whether to actually change the speed limit.
The tollway authority is open to conducting that speed test as soon as work is completed on the I-30 interchange, officials said. That work is expected to be wrapped up in the next several weeks, officials said.
Typically, new roadways are given up to six months for traffic to “normalize” before a speed test is conducted, said Elizabeth Mow, tollway authority assistant executive director of infrastructure.
“We’ll work with the city or any of our partners if they want to change the lower speed limit,” Mow said. “We really do hear a lot about the speed limit.”
No unilateral decision
Fort Worth Councilman Jungus Jordan, whose district includes southwest Fort Worth, is among the proponents of a higher speed limit. Jordan said he hopes the city can hold public meetings as early as September or October to gauge public support for raising the legal speeds.
“We will not make a unilateral decision,” he said. “We need to go through a thorough public process.”
But Jordan said he already senses widespread support for higher speed thresholds not only in the four northernmost miles, but up and down the 28-mile corridor — perhaps 10 mph faster than the current posted limits.
“An overwhelming majority of people — maybe 99 of 100 — tell me they love the road,” he said, “but not the speed limit.”
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796