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Cable barriers to be placed on I-81

March 21, 2001

Cable barriers to be placed on I-81



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg

Cable barries on I-81Photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer

Bowing to pressure from public officials and residents, the State of West Virginia will install cable barriers in the median of Interstate 81 though part of Berkeley County.

The state also will restrict commercial truck traffic to the two right-hand lanes of the interstate when it expands to three lanes each way. But officials would not agree to lower the speed limit, as requested by the Berkeley County Commission.

"There certainly was a lot of community interest" that helped prompt the decision, said state Highway Engineer Joe Denault.

National standards indicate guardrails are optional in areas with a similar traffic load to I-81 in Berkeley County, he said. The state was not going to install guardrails, but county officials, legislators and citizens voiced concerns about safety.

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Officials had said the 36 feet between the outer edge of the left-hand lanes both northbound and southbound would provide enough safety for motorists. The new barriers, three strong cables tied together through posts, will be installed as expansion of the interstate is completed.

Eventually, the barrier will be in place from Exit 8 (Tablers Station Road) north to Exit 20 (Spring Mills Road), a stretch of about 11 miles.

The state will install the barriers, then evaluate their effectiveness, said Commissioner of Highways Fred Van Kirk.

Berkeley County Sheriff Randy Smith said the cable barriers are better than grass in a median, but do not provide as much safety as concrete Jersey barriers would. Trucks will go right through cable barriers, he said.

Denault said the number of vehicles that go across the median and onto the other side is small on any interstate highway. Most skid into the median and remain there. These barriers, the first of their kind in West Virginia, "will absorb the impact from the vehicles, but not throw them back" into the lane the car left, Denault said. The concrete barriers do divert cars back into traffic, he said.

"Evidently, (Denault) has never worked traffic on an interstate," Smith said.

At approximately $50,000 per mile, the cable barriers are about one-tenth the cost of concrete barriers, Denault said.

Berkeley County Commission President Howard Strauss remained unconvinced that cable barriers are the answer.

"They need to show us studies to provide this is the best option officials of the Division of Highways has," Strauss said.

All agreed moving the trucks to the two right-hand lanes was a good idea to lessen the number of trucks near the median that might come across.

"It provides another 12 feet of recovery" in case of an accident, Denault said.

But he and Strauss disagreed about the effectiveness of lowering the speed limit.

The commission sent a letter urging the state to lower it from 70 to 65 mph in the nonconstruction zone of the freeway through the county.

"If we put up signs lowering the speed limit, it doesn't lower the speed limit," Denault said. "If the speed limit is 70, people will drive 79. If you lower it, they will still drive 79. They drive at whatever speed they feel comfortable."

He suggested the answer is more law enforcement.

"I'm going to suggest to (Smith) that he designate a specific deputy to enforce the speed limit," said Strauss, who still wants to see the limit lowered.

Smith said he plans to do that, but he has a shortage of people at the moment.

"When we get everybody trained and out on the road, I think that's a good idea and something I would have done anyway," he said.

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