AUSTIN - State transportation officials on Thursday boosted speed limits on two stretches of rural interstate in West Texas from 75 mph to 80 mph, the highest posted speed limit in the nation.

New speed signs should be up in the next few days. The 80-mph limit will be confined to 10 mostly rural counties in West Texas: a 432-mile stretch of Interstate 10 between El Paso and Kerrville; and 89 miles of Interstate 20 between Monahans and the I-10 interchange at the cusp of the Jeff Davis Mountains.

State officials say the roads can accommodate it, but critics warned that it will cost lives and hit drivers in the wallet at a time of spiking fuel prices.

"This will result in more deaths. The research is pretty clear about that," said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "You get someplace faster but at what cost?"

The Legislature first approved raising the speed limit from 70 to 75 in 1999, then approved the bump to 80 by a unanimous vote last year. The state Transportation Commission voted Thursday to raise the limits.

Mike Behrens, executive director of the state transportation agency, noted the new speed limit will affect only a fraction of the 70,000 highway miles in the state.

The affected roads are mostly straight as they shoot through the West Texas flatlands and get little traffic compared with other parts of the state.

Agency studies found 85 percent of drivers on those highways are already cruising between 76 and 79 mph, said Carol Ranson, deputy director for traffic operations.

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