It’s time for drastic and unprecedented action concerning I-35 construction in Bell County.
In the past week, Salado first responders were called out about a dozen times to accidents in the congested construction areas of I-35. Meanwhile Temple first responders were called out to accident that closed the highway for hours in the northern part of Bell County.
Most of the accidents involved 18-wheelers. The problem is not the 18-wheelers themselves but the lack of attention paid by drivers and the dangerous driving conditions created by the miles of concrete barriers and lack of shoulders along the construction of I-35 in Bell County.
Last fall, four full mainlanes of I-35 were taken off of the original interstate and transferred onto what can only be described as makeshift traffic lanes situated between the old I-35 mainlanes and the old northbound access road lanes.
A sign warns you in each direction of the sudden shift in the lanes and to slow down to 50 MPH, but that is not what happens. Traffic continues to hit this area, oft-times with 18-wheelers side-by-side through a deadly chute with no room for error.
Add some rain and you have what happened last week. Multiple accidents in a rural community that is not set up to handle it. Meanwhile the DPS is undermanned in this area as resources have been pulled from here to the southern border.
So accidents happen.
The difference being this: now the accidents completely shut down the interstate, rather than merely slowing things down and narrowing down to one lane.
This is costly. To those 18 wheelers involved in the accident and to the hundreds of trucks stuck in the accidents waiting for a tow truck to somehow find its way to the scene to pull the tractor trailer from the road.
Then there’s the inevitable clean up of the scene. If the barriers have been moved, as often has happened here in Salado, then they have to be moved back into place. This requires pulling off James Construction crews from the jobs they were working on and putting them in the emergency work of moving barriers. This often results in overnight, emergency closures of mainlanes and/or access road lanes for the big equipment to get back in and fix what was broken by the accident.
This results in one more day being added to the endless number of days that construction has been going on in Salado and now in Temple.
How can it be fixed?
The 18-wheelers must be forced by either TXDOT or the Governor into one of two things during the remaining months of construction:
#1. Travel in only one lane from northern Williamson County to northern Bell County.
#2. This will take more back bone and political will to do so, but is far safer. Get them off the interstate until the barriers can come down.
This might be done by putting in place a temporary “Construction Route” for the 18-wheelers in Bell County. The heavy trucks heading north can exit the interstate at the Holland Road exit and travel east on FM 2268 to State Highway 95 and then travel north to connect back to I-35 at the northern end of Loop 363. Southbound trucks could take the reverse route.
Google maps times the alternate route at 37 minutes, compared to the 20 minutes of clear Interstate driving. But how often do we have clear interstate driving with the construction ongoing?
Unfortunately, there is not really an alternate route around the congestion of Troy and even a moderate to heavy rain can shut down the interstate there.
TXDOT and Governor Abbott should show the strength of character to look out for the well-being of traveling Texans. However, if past behavior is any indication, little if anything will be done.