By Stephen Smoot
.A controversial Allegheny Mountain construction site on U.S. 33 received safety upgrades recently after a near-fatal accident involving a truck. Local officials, however, still expressed concern for the safety of the site itself and long term solutions for the dangerous stretch of road.
For the duration of the construction, the West Virginia Department of Highways decreased the work zone speed limit to 30 miles per hour. Signs instruct drivers to slow to the new speed limit at the summit of the mountain. Additionally, a second message board advises drivers to slow their vehicles.
State officials have advised that the TL-5 enhanced guardrail project will be fully completed by Nov. 15.
The DOH also has looked at additional signage to complement an enhanced guardrail system, as the permanent solution to a decades old problem of deadly accidents on the east slope of the mountain.
Rick Gillespie, Pendleton County Emergency Services coordinator, has suggested significant changes to the overall signage regime on eastbound U.S. 33 starting just west of the summit.
He first describes the initial sign, reading “Trucks Must Stop 1,000 Feet.” Gillespie explains, “This is the only sign that suggests the stop is ‘MANDATORY,’” but states that the actual word “mandatory” will have a greater effect. He said, “A proper ‘MANDATORY’ sign should have flashing lights for added attention.” He added that “‘MANDATORY’ removes all doubt and has more impact.”
Next, Gillespie states that the pull off lane for tractor-trailer brake checks is insufficient for the task. Its length can only accommodate a single truck at a time. Often filled, “other trucks simply pass on by.”
Furthermore, if a truck’s brakes are damaged, it could take space in the lane for significant amounts of time waiting for repair.
Gillespie suggested that the yellow sign warning of the steep grade should also indicate the upcoming presence of dangerous 25 mile per hour curves farther down the mountain. Additionally, “a sign displayed over top of the roadway” with a schematic drawing would help truck drivers to fully understand the dangers ahead and adjust their driving accordingly.
“I don’t pretend that it would be a cheap solution,” Gillespie explains, but such a sign “with flashing lights on all four corners might have impact in reducing the number of truckers descending down the mountain without proper precautions.”
The slope has three proven dangerous curves – Dead Woman’s Curve, Horseshoe bend, and a third below Horseshoe.
Signage, however, only provides a Band-Aid style fix according to Gillespie. As he told West Virginia Metro news last month, “I think we’d be living in a dream world to think signs alone are going to fix this situation because there’s a lot of motorists out there who just don’t pay attention to the signage.”
He also informed state highways and transportation officials that “I see signage as only one step of a multi-step solution . . . the truck crashes have continued, and will continue absent a highway redesign. Absent a highway realignment, the escape ramps of some type will be needed.”
Gillespie has repeatedly cited the success of “Catch-Net” ramp and net systems in Rocky Mountain states in halting heavy runaway trucks.
A major $17 million upgrade originally planned to enhance safety on U.S. 33 as part of Governor Jim Justice’s “Roads to Prosperity” bond issue was scrapped and the funds transferred to projects in other parts of the state.
Other projects using that bond money include an $11 million project to reduce congestion near a high end shopping center near Charleston.