Stuck behind trucks: Wise County motorists want gravel-hauling rigs out of the way

Posted Friday, Jun. 07, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Truck inspections Nearly a third of commercial trucks pulled over in Wise County this week for a spot check failed inspections and were taken out of service, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. State troopers conducted inspections of gravel trucks as well as many other commercial trucks Wednesday and Thursday near the intersection of U.S. 380 and U.S. 287 in Decatur. The work was sponsored by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, a group that includes police agencies and trucking companies from throughout the United States. On Wednesday, the group pulled over 160 vehicles at the Wise County stop, and took 56 vehicles out of service for a variety of mechanical problems. “It could be brakes. A lot of them just had to have a maintenance guy come out and change a hose,” said DPS Sgt. Lonny Haschel. Three drivers were taken out of service for irregularities, such as log book violations and a lack of an up-to-date medical card. On Thursday, another 197 commercial vehicles were pulled over, and 54 of them were taken out of service, he said. Eight drivers were taken out of service for irregularities, including two arrested for outstanding warrants.

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On most mornings, the gravel trucks file out of Bridgeport in waves, like an armada of tanks heading for battle.

But their call to arms is anything but militaristic. Instead, it’s just the daily struggle in North Texas to keep up with the region’s never-ending hunger to build more warehouses, stores, homes and highways.

These trucks, each bearing more than 80,000 pounds of crushed and freshly washed gravel from one of at least five enormous quarries operating between Bridgeport and neighboring Chico, are the lifeblood of the economy in northern Wise County.

By one estimate, more than 5,500 gravel trucks per day rumble down roads such as Texas 114, U.S. 287 and U.S. 380, heading for any number of construction sites in Fort Worth, Arlington, Dallas and Denton.

But these battered aluminum and steel rigs can also be a tremendous nuisance, a pair of prominent law enforcement officials say.

During peak periods — morning rush hour, for example —the trucks can line up at intersections 10-deep, making it nearly impossible for smaller cars to get around.

“Every week, someone in town stops me and asks me, ‘Can’t you do anything about those trucks?’” said Bridgeport Police Chief Randy Singleton.

Wise County Sheriff David Walker added, “Those trucks will get in both lanes headed east, and you will be stuck behind them for three to five miles.”

Singleton and Walker are joining forces in an attempt to clean up something of a gravel truck conundrum in their area.

They’re asking the Texas Department of Transportation to consider banning trucks from the left lane of U.S. 380 on the northeast side of Bridgeport, where trucks heading east frequently slow traffic to 15 mph or less as they pass through a traffic signal on their way out of the city en route to Decatur and Denton.

Such a move would create a much longer line of gravel and other commercial trucks in the right lane of highways, but would make it possible for four-wheel vehicles to pass in the left lane.

However, a lane restriction would appear unlikely, since the transportation department generally requires a road to have at least three lanes in each direction before it qualifies for a lane restriction.

Still, state officials say they will look into the Wise County officials’ concerns.

“As always, TxDot will be a willing partner in any discussions on improving the safety of our system,” transportation department spokesman Val Lopez said. “We would be happy to evaluate specific locations the sheriff may have concerns with.”

Lopez added that “while all of North Texas has seen in increase in truck traffic due to the drilling of the Barnett Shale, TxDot has worked very hard to increase mobility and safety in Wise County and, specifically, along the U.S. 380 corridor.”

He noted that U.S. 380, originally a two-lane road, has been widened to a four-lane divided highway from Bridgeport to the Denton County line, and the widening of the road from the county line to the Denton city limits is in progress.

Also, Lopez said, Texas 101 and Farm Road 1810 have been widened to handle increased traffic. And shoulders will be added to several Wise County roads in the next year.

Happy to have trucks

Although the trucks are the source of complaints, many Wise County residents are glad to have the business the 18-wheelers bring. The truck drivers spend money in local stores, and the quarry companies are major employers in the area.

The trucks barreling through town can originate from any number of places. Some belong to major trucking companies with several hundred drivers, while others are owned by independent operators who live throughout North Texas. Several major trucking companies even call Wise County home.

“We have tons of truck traffic, but it’s a double-edged sword. I supply their accounts,” said Chuck Nichols, who runs Chuck Nichols Inc. Boots, Jackets and Jeans on Chico Highway in Bridgeport.

“It’s hard to keep this store clean. When they wash the gravel, the water drains onto the roads, and then we have dust. But as a business owner, we can’t do without them.”

For Nichols’ niece, Lacey Nichols, 19, of Alvord, every trip on U.S. 380 is a reminder of close friends who were killed in a chain-reaction crash in November 2010.

Delaney Mancil, 15, and Samantha Rogers, 17, were headed to Denton in a 2007 Pontiac G5 when a Dodge Ram pickup veered into an oncoming lane.

The pickup hit a GMC 7500 work truck, which then side-swiped a 2007 Mercury Grand Marquis before crashing into Rogers’ car head-on, killing both girls.

After the crash, Rogers’ mother, Eva Czerniak, petitioned the state to widen that stretch of U.S. 380.

Although the crash that killed Lacey Nichols’ friends didn’t involve a gravel truck, she is always aware of the potential danger of the aggregate haulers while she is driving on U.S. 380.

“The trucks are part of everyday life, but I drive a lot more careful and use caution, because any day could be the day,” she said, while taking a break from work at her uncle’s boot store.

Law enforcement officials conduct periodic crackdowns on truck safety. For example, last week, Texas Department of Public Safety officials conducted two days of spot checks on 357 commercial trucks pulled over at U.S. 380 and U.S. 287 in Decatur, and 110 vehicles, about 31 percent, were pulled off the road for safety violations.

The inspections were done on gravel trucks, as well as other commercial trucks.

Good drivers

Truck drivers say it’s unfair to single them out for punishment on the roads, especially since numerous studies have concluded that usually in a crash involving a truck and a four-wheel vehicle, more often than not it’s the driver of the smaller automobile who is found to be at fault.

“The only reason they’re singling us out is because they can’t see around us,” said Brenda Darling, who has been driving big rigs for 14 years.

On a recent afternoon, Darling and other drivers for CKJ Trucking LP, a family-owned company with more than 300 drivers based in Whitewright near the Oklahoma border, were taking a break at a Bridgeport truck stop waiting for a company dispatcher to send them to a quarry for their next load.

“I’m not a left-lane driver, but as long as a truck driver can do the speed limit, I don’t see why he shouldn’t be allowed in the left lane,” Paul Farmer, who has been driving in Texas for six years.

“We don’t hang out in the left lane, but there are plenty of four-wheelers that do.”

Aggregate capital

Bridgeport is home to 6,045 residents, and is known as the “Stagecoach Capital of Texas” for its place in history along the Butterfield Trail.

The area also became known for the coal that was discovered there in the late 1800s, according to the Bridgeport Chamber of Commerce.

But since the early 1900s the town’s history is more closely tied to the limestone quarries, and the hauling of sand, gravel and other aggregate materials for construction projects, especially highway work.

Among the major companies in and around the city: Texas Industries Inc.; Hanson Bridgeport Plant; Blue Star Materials; and Chico Limestone Inc.

Many of the drivers picking up loads at one of the quarries either work as independent drivers, or for separate trucking companies that specialize in hauling sand, stone and other such materials.

So for law enforcement officials, it’s not simply a matter of enlisting the help of the quarry operators, who don’t control the truck drivers once the big rigs have left the lot.

For a city that thrives on the quarries and the trucking industries — as well as the truck traffic from nearby oil and gas operations — it’s a quandary that’s not likely to be resolved by highway regulations.

Until a creative solution is found, many Wise County commuters will likely have to exercise patience as they wait for a chance to pass the rumbling gravel trucks.

“The passenger cars caught behind the long streams of trucks are relegated to traveling slowly,” Singleton said, “all the while having muddy water spraying all over their vehicles as well as gravel.”

Interactive: Watch the gravel pits grow. Choose “Explore The World” and type in “Bridgeport, TX”

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796 Twitter: @gdickson

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