TEMPLE — Perpetual traffic backups, accidents and construction will be a fact of life for the next four years in the Temple area as the Interstate 35 corridor receives a major overhaul.
Texas Department of Transportation officials urge people to look toward the conclusion and much better roadways, but in the meantime, drivers must deal with the construction.
Many drivers express concern about the safety of the barriers and worry about how the construction changes will impact their travel and safety.
The key to safety is to get drivers to slow down, said Jodi Wheatley, Interstate 35 specialist for TxDOT.
“We try to remind them frequently, but it’s the responsibility of the driver to do it,” Wheatley said.
She said she didn’t know if lowering the speed limits would decrease the number of accidents, but “lowering it more won’t make people any more likely to obey it than they are now.” It’s possible the speed limit still seems too fast for the area because so many other drivers are not obeying it, she added.
“They are still driving the 70 to 75 mph that was posted before the construction started,” she said.
Representatives of two local law enforcement agencies that deal with I-35 traffic on a daily basis had little to say about the impact on safety or the enforcement of speed limits on the interstate.
Cpl. Christopher Wilcox said the Temple Police Department has no input into what kinds of safety equipment is used by TxDOT in an individual construction zone.
“I believe that it is too early to try quantifying a negative effect that the expansion project may have on traffic flow. Of course it goes without saying that anytime lanes are closed or traffic diverted for construction, maintenance, accidents or any reason, motorists may see a negative impact on the flow of traffic,” Wilcox said.
“As you know, I-35 construction is necessary to expand to three lanes in each direction,” said Paul Romer, spokesman for the city of Belton.
When asked about issues with construction, Romer referred to a news article about a man who was killed while trying to work on his disabled vehicle in an area where the lanes were temporarily narrowed and another article reporting on the temporary pooling of water on driving lanes.
Cars are speeding through the construction areas in Belton, but the Belton Police Department has not “identified Interstate 35 as an area where an increased presence of law enforcement is necessary,” he said.
Fatalities statewide caused by crashes into barriers increased drastically in 2013 over the preceding years, according to information provided by Veronica Beyer, TxDOT media relations director.
So far in 2014, no one died from crashing into a barrier wall, but already 176 barrier-related accidents happened.
The good news is that no one died in Bell County from hitting a barrier since 2011, when one fatal crash happened.
One other fatal accident happened in 2009, according to TxDOT records.
But the bad news is that accidents related to barriers have increased since 2009, with 160 recorded in 2013. That figure is up from 112 accidents in 2012.
So far in 2014, a total of 25 accidents involved barrier strikes.
“It’s possible that TxDOT is making bad lane decisions as to where and how many barriers they place on I-35,” said Kara Kockelman, professor in engineering at the University of Texas.
“It’s weird to have two-lane tunnel areas where there are barriers on both sides and no shoulder,” Kockelman said Thursday. “You have to really pay attention, just drive and focus exclusively on driving.”