Driving America’s 85-mph toll road before the fun gets old


I went for a little drive the other day. A new section of Texas Tollway 130 had opened two weeks previous to more national attention than regional road ribbon-cuttings usually get. That's because the speed limit on this new road, which runs from Mustang Ridge, a nothing town southeast of Austin to Seguin, a slightly larger nothing town southeast of San Antonio, was to be 85 mph, the highest in North America. The other half of the road, heading north from Mustang Ride up to Waco, already has a speed limit of 80, but that wasn't enough. South Central Texas needed a drag strip, and I needed to run it, especially because after Nov. 11, it would no longer be free.

I wanted my first time to be special. The cars showing up in my driveway didn't suit: The Kia Soul, while peppy enough at 60 mph, threatened to blow apart as you neared 90, and that Mitsubishi crossover was about as fun as a can of Chunky soup. My daily drive, the 2010 Toyota Prius, could have handled the challenge — after all, Al Gore's son once got pulled over in Malibu doing 100-plus in an older model — but that still didn't make it the ideal choice. NASA once popped a monkey into space, too. I wanted a rocket built for humans.

Then it appeared in all its big-shouldered, "Radiant Silver Metallic" glory, a 2013 Cadillac ATS, with a 3.6 liter, 321-hp V-6 engine, barely more than 1,000 miles on the odometer, and "light platinum" leather seats emitting enough off-gassing to kill a canary. This was an American-made sports sedan, built for speed. The next morning, I waited until rush hour ended, strapped myself in, and launched.

Because I knew what was coming, the 20-plus miles on US 183 south to get to Mustang Ridge seemed pedestrian, even with its speed limit of 70 mph. I tapped the gas, not too heavily, just to see how quickly the ATS got to 85. It got there very quickly indeed, but I couldn't stay legally, so I backed off and waited. As the signs for the TX 130 turnoff began to appear, my palms dampened and my stomach fluttered. I felt like Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, even though I wasn't anywhere close. I know Germans who drive this fast every day before breakfast.

It grew closer: a mile and a half, a half mile, a quarter mile. I eased into the left lane, put on the turn signal, jacked the transmission into six-speed paddle shift mode, and hit the on ramp going forty. And then I was on the magic highway, doing 65, 70, 75, 80. When I saw the first sign that read "Speed Limit 85," I gave the pedal that little extra nudge and broke into the blue.

The ATS purred gratefully and smoothly, glad to be meeting the challenge for which it was engineered. It felt glorious to be going that fast, without fear of punishment. Naturally, I tested the limits. Wouldn't you? I went 90. And then I went 95. After that, 97 seemed natural. And so did driving 100. Even 110 wasn't out of the question, but when I reached that, I thought about the ticket I'd get if I got caught, not to mention the near-certain death I'd face if I crashed, so I eased back to a leisurely, and almost-legal, 88 mph.

South Central Texas will soon be one long urban megalopolis to rival southern California

But I wasn't going to get caught speeding, or at least probably not, because the road was almost empty, save the occasional truck or boxy, lonely Honda Element shuttling from one nowhere Texas town to another. The road opened before me, brand-new, briefly toll-free, and beautiful, sloping gently up and down, inviting with fresh temptations. Drive me as fast as you want, it seemed to say. I don't mind.

As the exits blurred past, I had plenty of time and space to take in my surroundings. The highway was so new that it contained not one single commercial building. A few mowing crews popped up here and there, and I saw a couple of guys landscaping slope. Other than that, there was nothing to see but trees and fields and open sky. It felt like what highway driving had been meant to be all along, before it became a passionless, endless battle with snack-chip trucks and bloated outlet mall patrons. I hadn't seen a billboard in more than 20 minutes. This was freedom.

I ran that highway in less than half an hour, got off at Seguin, bought a 20-ounce Cherry Coke Zero, and turned around. On the return trip, the 130 showed signs of a dark future. First of all, it was lunchtime, and therefore more crowded. It's one thing to drive 85 and higher when you're the only car on the road, but quite another when you're competing with other drivers who understand lane discipline about as well as they do theoretical physics.

This strip, I realized, would soon lose its innocence. The state of Texas didn't build it as a go-cart track for gas-hogging Caddys. Austin and San Antonio are both booming, and the I-35 corridor connecting them shudders under the weight of extreme population growth. They built the 130 to ease the traffic pressure. It probably will, a bit, but it's also an open invitation to developers. That's some pretty country right there along the San Marcos River. The day is coming when South Central Texas will be one long urban megalopolis to rival southern California. At one end sits a sign that points visitors to the new Circuit Of the Americas race track, and at the other, the entrance to Interstate 10. TX 130, the fastest road in the U.S.A., heralds a kind of lost innocence.

It's also, despite what the quasi-libertarian speed hogs who run this state claim, kind of a death trap. At one point, when I stopped to take pictures along the shoulder, a Corolla full of college kids raced past going way above the substantial speed limit, switching lanes constantly and for no reason, looking like a bee in flight. Some Austin troubadour with better songwriting skills than me is going to write a tribute to living fast and dying young on this road.

There've already been quite a few accidents, four on opening night, in fact, including one car completely totaled. That's because Texas built the 130 in prime feral hog territory. This forced them to put up large digital signs, at 10-mile intervals, reading "WILDLIFE CROSSING." That's all fine and good, but the problem is that wildlife can't read. Just outside Lockhart, I had to swerve fast and violently to avoid a freshly eviscerated coyote carcass. This is going to be a disgusting massacre without end.

How deeply ironic, then, that I pulled off TX 130 on my way home to take a five-minute jog into Lockhart, the barbecue capital of America, and bought a two-pound slab of pork ribs at Smitty's to bring home. What was once a half-day family trip has suddenly become an errand far less time-consuming than a visit to IKEA.

After unhitching the magnificent ATS from its oat bag in the parking lot, I got back in to finish the job on TX 130, the car smelling like deliciously un-feral pork. At the end of the road, a McDonald's loomed, signaling the end of this too-brief visit to Autopia. I transitioned back onto the 183, still going at least 80, and had to brake too suddenly when I barely noticed a low-lying bank of stoplights.

It was time to drive in the slow lane for a while.

Photo: ArtJonak via Flickr