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Officials express concerns about I-81 median

February 22, 2001

Officials express concerns about I-81 median



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Berkeley County's sheriff said the West Virginia Division of Highways' decision not to put a barrier between a new six-lane section of Interstate 81 in Berkeley County amounts to poor design, and the president of the Berkeley County Commission fears the absence of a barrier could result in the loss of lives.

Sheriff Randy Smith said he cannot imagine having six lanes of traffic on the interstate with only a 16-foot grass median.

Smith said the danger will be compounded in icy winter conditions.

"Do I think it's unsafe? Absolutely. Do I think there needs to be a barrier? Absolutely. Do I tell my family not to go out there unless it's necessary? Absolutely," Smith said.

"It's poorly designed," he said.

The Division of Highways took out part of the median along the interstate to expand the highway from four to six lanes. The highway department plans to expand the interstate to six lanes roughly from King Street north to the Spring Mills Road exit.

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The first segment, which stretches about four miles just north of the King Street exit to about the Queen Street exit, could be open by May, said Randy Epperly, deputy state highway engineer.

Epperly said the expanded section of the interstate can be considered to have a median wider than 16 feet. He said the new section of the interstate will have a 36-foot median because the 10-foot shoulders on the two inside lanes are considered to be part of the median.

Epperly said the 36-foot median is within standards, although the narrowest medians on new interstates being built in the country are 40 feet, he said.

The commander of the West Virginia State Police interstate patrol said the shoulders should not be considered part of the median. Typically, a median is a grassy area that causes a car to lose momentum when it is spinning or sliding out of control on the interstate, Sgt. Deke Walker said.

"When people are sliding, they are going to be sliding across that 10-foot asphalt, which is not going to slow them down," said Walker.

Walker said it is common for people to slide or spin off the interstate into the wide median that exists elsewhere. Most such accidents occur in snowy weather, Walker said.

"And then you will have people that will fall asleep and not pay any attention and run down in the median," Walker said.

Smith said he would like a concrete barrier to be installed between the two lanes.

Epperly said he thinks barriers could be more trouble than they are worth. If a motorist hits a barrier, it could cause the motorist's car to be thrown back into traffic, he said. Epperly said he favors an open median so motorists have the entire 36 feet to bring their cars under control.

Smith said he already is concerned about the rate of deaths on the 25-mile section of I-81 in Berkeley County.

Last year, five people were killed on the road, and the previous year, 10 people died, according to Robin Turley, who helps coordinate the state police's Fatality Analysis Reporting System.

"I would consider that to be a high number of fatalities," said Turley.

Walker said some administrative officials with the state police are considering writing a letter to Division of Highways officials expressing their concerns.

The Berkeley County Commission has decided to sent a letter to the highway department asking that a barrier be erected between the northbound and southbound lanes, according to Commission President Howard Strauss.

"I-81 shouldn't be built to the minimum standards. We should have the highest safety standards," Strauss said.

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