Retractable Median Gates Will Keep W.Va. Turnpike Traffic Moving Smoothly

Tue January 12, 2010 - Northeast Edition
Sara Gavin -Charleston Daily Mail



CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) State and federal officials have toured the West Virginia Turnpike and come up with a plan to install four median gates in the curvy, 30-mi. (48 km) stretch between Charleston and Mossy.

The gates, which would have to be opened manually by turnpike workers, would allow cars stopped in long lines of traffic behind wrecks, to pass through the median and head back in the other direction.

Officials with the state Department of Transportation as well as the Parkways Authority have been studying the idea of retractable gates since a major snowstorm hit West Virginia and shut down the Turnpike the weekend of Dec. 18 to 20. Motorists were stranded for up to 20 hours with no way out.

Representatives from the Federal Highway Administration joined state officials to tour sections of the turnpike on Dec. 28 and discuss a possible plan for the gates.

Greg Barr, general manager of the state Parkways Authority, said a series of four gates would be placed strategically along the stretch starting at the Mossy exit at mile marker 60 and extending north to the Yeager Bridge in Charleston.

“These gates have to continue to protect against crossover accidents while at the same time being moveable to slide back and allow traffic to move around,” he said.

The gates would be designed to slide along the existing median wall and not swing into the roadway, further blocking traffic. Barr said the gates would be manually operated by two workers who would release two pins on top of the gate to slide it open.

The authority considered looking into electronic gates but worried about power outages rendering them useless.

Barr believes the gates, had they been in place, could have relieved much of the tie-up that occurred during the snowstorm in December. However, he said they won’t be a cure-all and may not be able to accommodate tractor-trailers, which have a hard time making sharp turns.

“Most tractor-trailers are better prepared to last awhile during an emergency than passenger cars anyway,” Barr said. “We have to have a way to get those cars out of there.”

Transportation officials hope to have a contract for installation of the gates by mid-January but don’t have a clear picture yet on a completion date.

“It’s important that we get this going quickly,” said Brent Walker, spokesperson of the state Division of Highways. “We’ve spent a lot of attention on this, and the quicker the better so that we can continue to provide safety to the traveling public.”

Walker said the project will cost $850,000 and the Transportation Department will try to use federal dollars.

Bids for almost all projects being funded with federal stimulus funds have come in lower than officials projected, leaving a surplus of funding. Walker said Transportation officials may try to free up that money to buy or install the gates but isn’t sure how long that process would take.

“It can’t happen soon enough, that’s for sure,” he said.