We often hear the complaint that Pennsylvania, and this corner of the commonwealth in particular, is stuck in the past. That can be tough to debunk when you consider our old-fangled state liquor store system or the bottomless well of nostalgia for the 1970s incarnations of the Steelers or Pirates.
The suspicion that you’re heading backward in time can also catch up with you when you get on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Setting aside the rueful joke that it’s the nation’s oldest superhighway and the potholes haven’t been fixed since the day it opened, the turnpike’s speed limit has remained stubbornly fixed at 65 mph – 55 mph in some urban areas – while other states have boosted the speed limits on their interstates to 70 mph, including our neighbors in Ohio and West Virginia.
Probably not for much longer, though. On an experimental basis, a 100-mile swatch of the turnpike, going east from Shippensburg to Reading, switched to a 70 mph speed limit. It was approved last year as part of the transportation funding law. The Turnpike Commission is going to study whether there is an increase in mishaps on that portion of the road before implementing a 70 mph speed limit on other stretches of the 562-mile turnpike.
The cautious approach is warranted.
Although improvements in the design of cars and roads make increased speed limits possible – and, it must be noted, our vehicles now get better gas mileage than they did in the energy-crisis epoch of the 1970s, when speed limits were lowered – the simple fact is some parts of the Pennsylvania Turnpike might not be suited to a 70 mph limit simply due to the nature of the terrain.
On the Ohio Turnpike, a 70 mph speed limit feels comfortable, particularly on the pancake-flat slice between Cleveland and the Indiana state line. In Pennsylvania, however, there are few passages that offer such an easygoing, one-hand-on-the-wheel journey.
State Sen. Jay Costa, a Pittsburgh Democrat, told WESA-FM that it would be unwise to compare Pennsylvania to the other states in the lower 48 because “whether it be at the turnpike or whether it be at (I-376), at least in this region, it’s a hilly road, it’s a winding, bendy road, it’s just not necessarily safe for a higher rate of speed at this time. I think it’s appropriate for folks to look at a couple of spots, check where it’s appropriate, particularly given safety reasons.”
And, as we all know, most motorists typically go at least a smidgen over the maximum allowable speed. They can usually do it without rousing a state trooper from the median unless they are obviously traveling at least 10 mph over the posted limit. One need look no farther than I-79 heading northbound from Canonsburg into Allegheny County, where Pennsylvania State Police and the Department of Transportation recently installed speed trailers that let motorists know how fast they are traveling. In a zone where the speed limit is 55 mph, most drivers exceed mark, some by considerable margins. You can be assured that most vehicles will be clocking speeds at least in the 75 mph vicinity once the limit is set at 70 mph. Turnpike officials must take this reality into account.
Proponents of the switch say a faster speed limit will improve the flow of traffic and help move people and goods more quickly. Opponents say more carnage will result. We will be watching closely to see which side has the more accurate forecast.