HUNTINGTON — As Interstate 64’s cable barrier system upgrade and expansion project through Cabell and Wayne counties nears completion, officials are hoping the “new generation” of barriers will help protect commuter lives even further.
Brian Keith Paul is a name that might sound familiar to many who travel the interstate daily. He is memorialized with a sign on the I-64 bridge just west of the Huntington Mall. The honor was posthumously bestowed upon him by the West Virginia Legislature after he lost his battle with cancer.
Paul was the man whose efforts led to the placement of cable barriers along the stretch of the interstate following a series of deadly crossover crashes. As an owner of a towing business in Barboursville, he noticed a pattern of the crossover crashes and believed a median barrier of some type was needed to save lives.
In 2001 and 2002, prior to the barriers, 11 crashes resulting in 15 deaths occurred in the 28-mile stretch of roadway in Cabell and Wayne counties. Cable barriers first started being installed in Cabell County in 2002 in the 9-mile stretch of interstate between 29th Street and West Huntington. The installation proved effective and the number of interstate fatalities dropped.
By the end of 2007, cable barriers sporadically separated 13 miles between the 29th Street and Milton exits.
As of 2019, years after Paul’s advocacy, the barriers now stretch into West Virginia from Kentucky, through all of Cabell County, into Putnam County and beyond, and are getting an upgrade to improve safety even further.
Cabell County Sheriff Chuck Zerkle, who has spent a lifetime in law enforcement, reminisced of the days when he could drive over the center median to catch speeders traveling in the opposite direction when he was a state trooper. While that isn’t possible anymore for law enforcement, it’s worth it, he said.
“You can’t do that now, but the safety side of this, and how many lives these cables have saved, far outweighs anything else,” he said. “As you travel the interstate, you see it standing up; you see it torn down. You just realize every time you see it torn down it probably stopped a head-on collision that probably (could have) killed somebody.”
Prior to the current project, the barriers had nearly covered all of Cabell County, but a small stretch from Milton to Hurricane and beyond did not have any median barrier protection. The need for the expansion was noticed during public outcry after a 2017 car crash left two young children dead and their mother, Siera Lenise Burgess, in prison for intoxicated driving causing their deaths.
According to Chris Collins, a construction engineer with the West Virginia Department of Transportation District 2, the project is expected to cost $6.5 million. The barriers are up, but some guardrails need to be installed, as well as grading and seeding in the medians. Weather dependent, the project could be completed by the end of the year.
Existing cable barriers in Cabell and Wayne counties were also replaced with the new technology, except in locations where a concrete barrier is in place or where future construction is expected, such as a lane expansion project between the 29th Street and mall exits in Cabell County.
Each original barrier consists of three strands of cable supported by individual steel posts, but the new barriers are taller and consist of four strands of cable.
They are engineered to withstand a vehicle traveling at the posted speed limit. Most vehicle crashes only damage the posts. The barrier posts are designed to break when hit, causing the cables to flex and absorb the force of the car and its movement.
Collins said the new technology places the barriers closer to the inner shoulders, instead of closer to the center of the median, and are made so that repairs can be make quicker. Building the barriers on a concrete line helps make that possible, he said.
“This new system will allow it to be repaired a lot faster,” he said. “The post will just be removed and then the new post will be stuck into the concrete strip. If there is an accident in an area, we would be able to have it installed and working properly quickly.”
New, thicker and stronger guardrails have also gone up around overpass bridges along the interstate. That’s already lessened the blow of one major crash in Kenova, he said.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, on all of its roadways — not just I-64 — from 2004-08, Cabell County saw a total of 69 fatalities, an average of 17.25 per year. From 2014-18, there were 62, an average of 15.5 per year.
Both Collins and Zerkle agreed the barriers were not 100% foolproof, but noted that the barriers have a great impact in making the roadways safer.
There have been at least two reports since 2017 of cars going over the barriers and crashing in the opposite lanes, usually caused by speed or West Virginia’s hilly roads.
Zerkle also said reducing the amount of force in a crash is important, which means keeping cars on the same side of the road of the direction they are going is important. A car hitting one going in the same direction has less force than two cars traveling 70 mph in different directions.
“You are talking about a lot of force. As long as we can keep you going in the same direction, it will be better. After you go into the opposite direction, it’s hard to survive,” he said. “There will be rare occasions when they come through and cross into the other side, but that’s rare. I think you will see less of that with the (new generation of barriers).”
People against the barriers say they are dangerous to those who crash their vehicles, especially motorcyclists.
Zerkle believes the barrier upgrade will help solve some of the issues.
Collins said versus building concrete barriers along the interstate, cable barriers are more cost efficient, even with the cost of upkeep.