Tuesday, December 04, 2012

TOP STORY >> Dangerous overpass

Leader staff writers

Yet another accident occur-red on the aging and troublesome Main Street overpass on Hwy. 67/167 in Jacksonville early Tuesday morning when northbound truck driver Kenneth O’Conner lost control of his 18-wheeler.

From 2001 through 2010, the State Police worked 249 crashes on the bridge or its approach, according to statistics provided by the State Police.

According to State Police Trooper Adrian Ray, O’Conner’s right front tire blew out while he was crossing the bridge. The truck took out about eight concrete guard rail posts before plunging down the grassy embankment. Ray said the driver attempted to pull off the freeway safely.

O’Conner said, “I tried to save the truck,” but could not.

He was not injured.

“That’s my saving grace,” O’Conner said.

The overpass has a long history of accidents and death. In tandem with the Redmond Road overpass just to the south, it is slated for replacement with bids to be let next summer, according to Highway Department spokesman Randy Ort.

It should take at least 18 months for construction after bids are accepted, according to Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher. He and his predecessor, Mayor Tommy Swaim, have long lobbied for a bridge fix.

Ort said the state highway engineers visited the accident site Tuesday and repairs would begin soon. State highway workers will do the repairs, Ort said.

Most accidents on the Hwy. 67/167 Main Street overpass occur in the southbound lane, where centrifugal force helps errant vehicles to—and sometimes through—the guardrails 20 feet above Main.

In late October, a local man was killed in an accident on or near the bridge, the mayor said.

Of Tuesday’s accident, Fletcher said, “My concern is the safety and design of the bridge.” He said someone below could have been killed by the dislodged pillars and guardrails.

Fletcher said there had been a public hearing on the bridge replacement and that he hoped the Highway Department would include incentives to get the eventual construction contractor to finish early.

Ort said that was both possible and likely.

Fletcher estimated the bridges would be replaced by the end of 2014 at the earliest.

Both those projects have been in the pipelines for years, although only recently were the Redmond Road and Main Street bridges combined into a single project, by way of addressing the Main Street project sooner than planned. Local residents and commuters have become used to accidents, orange barrels and bridge guardrail repairs on the outside southbound lane of the overpass.

From January 2003 through December 2006, the State Police worked 118 accidents resulting in 71 injuries on the Main Street overpass or within a quarter mile, according to data supplied by the state.

At times only the barrels, good fortune and careful driving have kept other vehicles from plunging unimpeded to Main Street below until repairs were completed.

In February 2006, Jerry Justice, 34, of Ward was crushed and pronounced dead at the scene after the gravel truck driven by Donald Ray Watkins, 35, slammed two pickup trucks through the overpass guardrail and plunged after them onto Main Street, about 20 feet below, dumping the gravel on the other vehicles, according to the State Police account.

The new structures will have three lanes in each direction and generous shoulders, according to Ort and the 2013-2016 Transportation Improvement Plan estimates the replacement cost at $17.3 million.

Fletcher, who has advocated for quick and effective replacement of those bridges since taking office, admits that traffic will be a nightmare for commuters during the construction, which he said could take 12 to 18 months.

The new Main Street bridge will have a gentler curve than the current bridge, will have barriers that meet modern standards and will be banked, according to Jacksonville City Engineer Jay Whisker.

The old barriers were concrete posts supporting guard rails, and the outside barrier on the southbound structure seemed at times to be perpetually broken and under repair.

“The city wanted the curve taken out for obvious reasons, but the highway department said we can’t take it completely out,” Whisker said.

The new overpasses are the next step in the widening of Hwy. 67/167 from I-40 to Cabot.