The Idaho Transportation Department says a contractor sealing pavement on Interstate 84 when a crash killed four people correctly followed a safety plan developed under federal guidelines.
Some drivers have faulted the herding of eastbound traffic from four lanes to one that Saturday night, June 16, when three airmen from Mountain Home Air Force Base and a long-haul truck driver died killed in a wreck about 11:30 p.m. near the Cloverdale Road overpass. Seven vehicles were involved. Some drivers said signs were inadequate and the lane closures took them by surprise.
The Penhall Co., of Anaheim, California, was working that night to fill seams between slabs of concrete on a 3-mile stretch of I-84 between Five Mile Road and Orchard Street, starting a mile east of the crash site.
ITD said Penhall was following a 54-page safety plan developed by Parametrix, a Seattle-based engineering firm. An ITD inspector at the scene after the wreck said the warning signs and lane tapering conformed with the plan, department spokesman Jake Melder said.
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The plan established a two-and-a-half-mile buffer zone east of the Eagle Road interchange to allow traffic to merge right as the three left eastbound lanes were blocked one by one before the start of the construction zone, just past the Five Mile Road overpass.
A portable message board east of Eagle Road informed motorists that a work zone was ahead. Then a series of signs placed on the left and right shoulders first repeated that a work zone was ahead, then warned of increased fines for speed violations, then warned of the speed limit dropping from 65 mph to 55 ahead, and then posted the lower speed limit. Each set of signs was spaced 1,000 feet to 1,500 feet apart.
About 1,000 feet after the speed-limit signs, another set of orange signs informed motorists of "3 lanes closed ahead." After another 1,000 feet, signs announced the end of the far left lane, with tapering beginning after another 1,000 feet and extending a minimum of 660 feet. After each lane closure, the next lane remained open for a quarter-mile (1,320 feet), before the start of the next tapering.
Traveling at the speed limit, it would have taken motorists at least two minutes and 20 seconds to drive from the portable message board to where the freeway narrowed to one open lane, ITD said. Actually, traffic slowed to a crawl and as vehicles merged.
Penhall has since finished the seam-filling work, installing a rubbery waterproofing substance that extends the life of the road. The $1.9 million project covered two construction seasons.
It's unclear whether merging traffic ahead of the construction zone played any role in the wreck. Idaho State Police are still investigating.
An eastbound semitrailer truck loaded with apples and an SUV were slowing for the merging traffic when the truck struck the SUV and pushed it into another semi. The first truck burst into flames. Four other vehicles were also struck.
The fire damaged the Cloverdale overpass, and authorities closed it. ITD decided a few days later to replace the 52-year-old overpass with a new, wider bridge rather than repair it. The Ada County Highway District decided Wednesday to speed up its long-term plans to widen Cloverdale Road in that area to match the bridge.
The Statesman previously reported about two motorists who drove through the construction zone the night before the wreck and criticized ITD for the way the lanes narrowed. They called 911 to report what they described as dangerous conditions.
An Idaho State Police trooper drove through the area that night, but did not find conditions troubling, though he did notify ITD of the concerns.
One regular commuter, Ari Widner Ford, said that he drives through the area of the wreck every day from Meridian. He saw the warning signs before the construction zone but said other drivers either didn't see them or ignored them.
"Do people start slowing down there, at the first notification of construction?," he said. "Oh no. They go flying on down the freeway, merging at the last minute, and trying to get through the construction as fast as they can."
Another driver, Boise resident Sabrina Parsonson Ferrulli, echoed others' complaints about inadequate notifications.
"I feel they do not give motorists enough advance warning or enough signage to safely merge over to the correct lanes," she said.
A message left Thursday afternoon on the cell phone of a Penhall project supervisor was not returned.
ITD released a copy of the project's safety plan to the Idaho Statesman this week in response to a public records request.