- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 26, 2015

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - “Dysfunction junction” is a crude moniker for the disastrous, now deadly, interchange at Interstates 85 and 65.

Even before a Georgia trucker died in a fiery crash there earlier this month, the sharply curving ramp that feeds into the two major interstates had been a traffic nightmare. At least three trucks have overturned there since January.

But there are no plans for changes to the ramp, and don’t expect any soon. Those responsible for the interchange said there is little that can be done, even if changes are deemed necessary.

An argument that change is necessary came after the fiery single-vehicle crash that killed 41-year-old Donald Clark of Georgia on April 8, when his 18-wheeler flew off the interchange ramp, bursting into flames upon impact with the streets below.

Montgomery police, fire units, medics and support crews responded at about 7:35 p.m., closing the roads down for most of the night.

Records going back to 2004 show trucks have regularly overturned while trying to drive through this junction faster than they should.

“There is not a week, or a month certainly, that does not go by where we don’t have a catastrophic event there,” Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange said.

Each time a truck overturns, local fire, police and clean-up crews dutifully shut down the ramp for hours, until the truck can be righted and towed away, the area can be cleared and the walls are repaired.

Soon the accident is forgotten, and the cycle begins again because the problems remain.

Tony Harris with the Alabama Department of Transportation says the configuration of the interchange is safe if motorists follow the speed limit, which drops from 55 mph to 35 mph.

“I understand I might sound harsh in saying this, but the real solution to the issue is that safe roadways start with safe drivers,” Harris said.

“It’s an interchange where there is a prescribed speed limit,” Harris added. “When the prescribed speed limit is adhered to, we don’t see problems with that design.”

At this time, ALDOT is not considering making any changes to the Interstate 85 south to I-65 south ramp. The ramp was inspected directly following last week’s crash, and no structural damage was found to the ramp.

But even if the department said there was a design problem with the junction, they would be able to do little to fix it.

There is only so much engineers can do because of the existing space. If the curve was given a wider berth, churches and schools in the area would need to be demolished, Harris said.

Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange talked about the dangers of the Interstate-85 south and I-65 interchange in an interview last month. He has talked with DOT officials several times during his term about the safety concerns the interchange poses, he said.

“It’s a federal highway so we have to work with DOT to litigate what those issues are,” Strange said. “If it was up to me, I’d demolish that thing right now and change the curvature and the design.”

The construction is outdated, having been designed and constructed nearly 40 years ago, he said.

But Strange is also familiar with the problems that surround fixing the problem.

He said a project to reconstruct the interchange would cost more than $10 million, based on the costs needed to reconfigure the Perry Hill Road and Interstate-85 junction.

Although most admit there is a driving problem at the interchange, most also agree that the real problem may lie with the drivers going through it.

Christopher Murphy, director of the Montgomery Department of Public Safety, admitted that the interchange was “problematic.”

“Historically, the Interstate-85, 65 corridor brings a challenge to the majority of the thoroughfare with its design where people take it too fast, they’re distracted, or tailgating,” Murphy said.

He said the only way for the city to deter accidents there is to enforce the speed limit, which drops from 55 mph to 35 mph. A large yellow sign and flashing lights indicate the speed change.

Harris said the sign has been there for as long as he can remember, more than 25 years ago.

“If you’re looking for a common denominator among the crashes in that area, almost without exception it is due to excessive speed,” Harris said.

That’s why the flashing signage is there after public outcry about the excessive accidents on the ramp. The radar speed indicator signs on the other ramps were added three or four years ago, when the last fatality occurred at the interchange, Harris said.

Speed must be enforced, because momentum of the vehicle’s load will pull it toward the wall.

“You get up to the ramp and take a sharp left and that load shifts,” Strange said. “The only thing we can do (from a) local standpoint is do everything we can to slow speed down.”

One of the suggestions for speed limit enforcement is a 24/7 mechanical police speed car. However, such a vehicle is prohibited by federal law to be stationed on any federal highway.

Police have increased their motor patrols in that area, but it is impossible to have someone there monitoring 24/7, said Lt. Denise Barnes, spokeswoman for the Montgomery Police Department.

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Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, https://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

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