State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
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Pedal, meet metal: 70 mph limits come to the Turnpike

Written by Mary Wilson, Former Capitol Bureau Chief | Jul 23, 2014 2:02 PM

Photo by Mary Wilson / witf

A chunk of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in central and eastern Pennsylvania is getting switched this week to a 70 mph speed limit.

Legislation passed last year allowed interstates, including the Turnpike, to increase their maximum speed to 70 miles an hour, from 65 miles an hour.

But transportation agencies have the final say about enacting higher speed limits - so, why do state lawmakers get a say over highway speeds at all?

PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch said it's a holdover from the 1970s, during the U.S. oil crisis.

"They rolled the speed limit, maximum speed, on the interstates back to 55 nationally. So it became legislated then. And then the states sort of mirrored that legislation with their own maximum speeds. And if you didn't do it, if you didn't enact the legislation to roll it back, you lost federal funding," Schoch said. "So I think that's when it originated. So then, since then, it's always stayed in the hands of the legislature in terms of maximum speed."

Schoch said, barring any safety issues, the rest of the Turnpike could get the higher speed next year (except for work zones and at curves).

"The leading cause of crashes is still going too fast for conditions," Schoch said. "So the concern we have is as we go to 70 miles an hour, will that exacerbate the problem or not?"

But Schoch doesn't anticipate an increase in accidents, saying the interstates were designed in the 50s and 60s to handle 70 mph speeds.

"We're basically back to where we started," Schoch said. "The cap is back where we designed it to start with. To raise it any higher, for example, would be fruitless. We didn't design any of this system to be any higher than 70 miles an hour."

In addition to the Turnpike changes, portions of Interstate 80 and Interstate 380 are also getting the new speed limit posted next month.

Other roadways under PennDOT's jurisdiction could see increased speed limits. Plans are in place to implement the higher limit throughout the rest of the Turnpike next year.

"For our Turnpike system, we believe the entire thing probably is going to move to 70 miles an hour next spring or summer," Schoch said.

And why increase the maximum speed at all on Pennsylvania roadways? Schoch said PennDOT's goal is to match speed restrictions to actual user speed, with considerations for safety.

"If they're driving at 72 [mph] and 85 percent of the traffic's running at 72 [mph]," Schoch said, "and we don't see any safety issues associated with it, why not raise the speed to match what the operational characteristics are," said Schoch. "And take away the big threat or exposure, perhaps getting a ticket, for going 72 [mph]."

Published in State House Sound Bites

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