TCEQ begins to relax rules on DFW’s stupid environmental speed limits

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is finally relaxing rules on the Dallas/Ft. Worth (DFW) area’s stupid environmental speed limits (ESLs).

Yes, I meant “stupid”.

Background: the TCEQ must improve air quality in parts of Texas that don’t comply with Clean Air Act standards. In 2001 and 2002, in 17 Texas counties around Houston and Dallas/Ft. Worth, all 70 and 65 mph speed limits were reduced by 5 mph. The TCEQ guessed this would cause a 5.5 mph speed reduction (they assumed average speeds are 10% over the limit) and a modest emissions reduction.

In fact, ESLs don’t clean the air. Arbitrary speed limit changes have little, if any, effect on actual speeds. Further, the TCEQ wildly overestimated ESLs’ emissions benefit. Compared to total emissions reduction needs, ESLs’ true air cleaning-contribution is between imaginary and a rounding error.

Here’s what arbitrarily low limits really do: turn safe motorists into lawbreakers, undermine respect for the law and police, and make roads less safe due to more speed variance.

The cost/benefit ratio is out of whack!

If that’s not bad enough, almost all ESL benefits come from heavy trucks, not passenger vehicles! This means the vast majority of hassled motorists are barely even contributing to this imaginary emissions benefit.

The Texas Legislature saw the stupidity of ESLs and prospectively banned them as of September 1, 2003. “Prospective”, however, means already-enacted ESLs can remain but new ones cannot be imposed. They had to do this because repealing all ESLs would cause Texas to lose federal highway dollars.

Now the TCEQ is the relaxing ESL rules for DFW: ESLs are now a “transportation control measure”. This means that, instead of explicitly requiring ESLs, DFW’s Clean Air Act implementation plan will only require their (imaginary) emissions reduction. Therefore, ESLs can be eliminated if their (imaginary) emissions reduction is made up by some new emissions reduction. Before this change, any ESL change required a thorough analysis and an EPA rubber stamp if Texas is to retain federal highway dollars.

What prompted this? Recently, the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) raised many of its speed limits. A portion of its roadways were subject to ESLs–the Dallas North Tollway between Frankford Rd. and TX-121 and the parts of the George Bush Turnpike that were open before 9-1-2003. The NTTA justified disregarding ESLs because their (imaginary) emissions reductions were offset by the ongoing conversion to all-electronic tolling (elimination of toll booths).

Now what does this mean for other roads? Probably little. If the TCEQ and EPA wanted to practice intellectual integrity, they would have ditched ESLs long ago and done something else. But in the fantasy world of their bureaucrats, ESLs’ imaginary benefit is real, so they cannot be dropped outright without jeopardizing highway funds.

The only way I see additional DFW highway speed limits increasing is one of these scenarios:

  1. Some road improvement causes an emissions reduction and this improvement is A. is not already part of the DFW Clean Air Act implementation plan and B. affects a road that existed as of 2000, when the emissions plan went into effect.
  2. Overall DFW emissions reduction needs are lowered, which I think is unlikely given that we’re looking down the barrel of even more stringent standards.
  3. ESLs are technically defined as a 5 mph speed limit reduction from a 70 or 65 mph limit. Roads that have a 60 mph limit today, but used to have a 65 limit before 2001 (when the ESLs went into effect), could be rezoned for 70 mph and then have an 65 mph ESL.
  4. Roads never subjected to ESLs in the first place could get increases. These include any roads with a 60 mph or lower limit before 2001 or any road that didn’t exist before 2003.

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