By Mannix Porterfield
Nearly $5 million in federal stimulus cash is making it easier to get off the West Virginia Turnpike in a crisis, get an early warning when trouble has flared, and provide traffic managers the technology to scan the 88-mile toll road for potential trouble with closed circuit television cameras.
What’s more, the Princeton-to-Charleston highway is installing more sophisticated message boards, and some are being erected by the Division of Highways off the turnpike to warn motorists when accidents or weather conditions have it blocked.
All of these upgrades were inspired by a massive storm last Dec. 18 that dumped more than 2 feet of snow in the Beckley area, trapping hundreds of motorists through the night on the turnpike.
By the end of May or mid-June, the turnpike expects to have all four emergency gates completed, Manager Greg Barr said Monday.
Gates became a point of focus even before the snow blitz. A huge traffic snarl ensued near the Chelyan toll plaza two summers ago when a tractor-trailer overturned, flipping what initially was feared to be a cargo of lethal chemicals.
Four emergency gates that will allow vehicles to make a U-turn are located at Mileposts 61, 63, 68 and 76.
“All the gates are done,” Barr said. “Cars can turn there now. What’s going to take a little longer are all the turnarounds so the tractor-trailers can have a turning radius to be able to turn around.”
A gate at Milepost 68 is finished, including a wider spot off the road where tractor-trailers can be wheeled around.
“It takes about two weeks per site to complete the turnarounds, including the paving, and installing new guardrails,” Barr said.
Gates cost about $25,000 apiece, but the construction to complete the turnaround sections by expanding a spot off the berms ran around $700,000.
“What helped it along was the federal government through the stimulus monies,” Barr said.
“Some of that money was designated for safety-related projects. That’s where this became a perfect fit for the use of stimulus funds that are linked up with safety.”
Stimulus cash also is being applied to the replacement of older overhead message boards with 19 modern, dynamic ones.
“It’s the same old story — we can’t get spare parts for the ones we have now,” Barr said, noting the inability to find replacement parts for the antiquated toll system.
“The pixel boards we need no longer are being manufactured. These new ones will be just like the ones the state is putting up in other areas of West Virginia, along Interstate 64 in Huntington. A couple of them will be on Eisenhower Drive and also up on U.S. 19 north, just north of the toll plaza. And they’re also putting in some on feeder roads on the turnpike, which is also helpful.”
Some of the 17 closed-circuit cameras will be attached to the message boards, but others will stand alone on poles behind guardrails.
Rather than be permanently focused on specific points on the road, Barr described them as pan, tilt and zoom — capable of moving around to capture a wide spectrum of the road.
“The primary thing is that as people are working in traffic management centers, if they look up and see traffic stopped on the turnpike at certain sections, and they haven’t been made aware of a problem, that’s a red flag that goes up,” Barr said. “Why is that traffic stopped there?”
Moreover, the cameras could also prove helpful to law enforcement. For instance, someone in the traffic control center might spy a suspicious vehicle parked off the highway for an extended period.
Combined, the emergency gates, new message boards and cameras run almost $5 million — almost mirroring the amount the turnpike expects to spend on upgrading its toll system. A contract is expected to be let for that at the May 6 meeting in Charleston of the road’s governing agency, the West Virginia Parkways Authority.
“We were lucky to be able to get some funding from this stimulus money to be able to pay for some of the things,” Barr said. “We would have been hard pressed to do everything we want to do and need to do to the roadway and be able to pay for all this.”
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