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Cornelius News

NCDOT says accident rate climbed in I-77 work area

By Dave Vieser. If it seems that if I-77 came to a halt more often in the past year because of accidents, you’re right. The number of crashes between Exit 23 and Exit 36 is up 7.8 percent, according to statistics provided by the NCDOT. There were 619 accidents from January-October, 2016, up from 574 during the same time period in 2015.

Construction work on the toll lanes began in November 2015, with the full impact felt earlier this year when lanes were shifted and barriers erected, narrowing travel lanes and eliminating shoulders.

The increase in accidents came as no surprise to local officials. “This certainly was predictable when they narrowed the lanes and eliminated a shoulder,” said Cornelius Commissioner Mike Miltich.

Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce CEO Bill Russell agreed. “This is an especially critical situation in the I-77-Lake Norman area because we lack the infrastructure…to handle additional capacity when I-77 becomes impassable because of an accident. If there is a collision between Mile Marker 23 and 36, we often see not only highways 21 and 115 becoming overly congested, but feeder roads such as Westmoreland, Catawba, and Gilead back up as well creating a regional gridlock.”

In addition to the number of accidents, the data from the state showed 134 accidents with injuries, up from 131 last year. More than 70 percent of the accidents in both years were rear-end collisions, and another 15 percent were sideswipes with vehicles traveling in the same direction. The most accidents were near exits 23, 25 and 28, consistent with the area where most of the construction has been taking place.

Fridays were the worst day for accidents; October the worst month. Speeding was cited as a factor in a significant number of accidents. There was one fatal accident both years.

The National Safety Council, which tracks accidents on a nationwide basis, says that 579 people were killed and 24,680 people were injured in construction zone crashes during 2013, the last year for which they have complete data. “Nearly all states have laws that increase the penalties for speeding or committing other traffic violations while in a construction zone.” said spokeswoman Maureen Vogel. “The penalties often involve doubled fines, but also can be a fixed dollar amount. In some cases, the penalty is applicable only when workers are present and/or if signs are posted.”

Making the I-77 stretch a designated construction zone is one step which the DOT and its construction partner I77 Mobility Partners could have taken. Last December, Jean Leier, spokeswoman for I77 Mobility Partners said that the NCDOT, in conjunction with the contractor, might impose a reduced “work zone” speed limit of 55 MPH, which usually carries enhanced enforcement and higher fines.

That has not happened, despite the sight of “semi’s being flung about by the deep grooving,” noted Miltich.

In response, DOT spokeswoman Jen Thompson said work zone speed limits are based on recommendations from the DOT’s Work Zone Safety Traffic Control Unit.

“The I-77 express lanes project has a work zone speed limit of 55 mph when lane closures or shifts are implemented and signs are posted. Otherwise, the speed limit is 65 mph. There is a $250 penalty for speeding in the work zone,” she said.

It was unclear where the 55 MPH signs are, however.