HALTOM CITY -- Charlie Parham grips the steering wheel tighter these days as he drives on Loop 820 and Texas 121/183.
As he navigates the concrete barriers, he knows that even a fender bender could shut down the freeway for an hour or more, or could leave him in such a tight spot that not even emergency vehicles could get through.
Workers have installed concrete barriers throughout the 13-mile corridor, to prepare for the $2 billion-plus construction of the North Tarrant Express.
On Loop 820 between North Beach Street and U.S. 377, for example, motorists are restricted to two narrow freeway lanes with concrete barriers on each side, and no shoulders or frontage roads to relieve traffic in the event of a crash.
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"They've taken down a few overhead signs and not replaced them with anything. So if you don't know that the next exit is 377, and you're not looking in the median at the downed overhead sign -- who is? -- then you don't really know what exit you're at," said Parham, a general sales manager at a firm in Irving who lives in far north Fort Worth and routinely drives on Loop 820.
Eventually, the North Tarrant Express will provide a much wider, smoother ride through Northeast Tarrant County, with more lanes, continuous frontage roads and longer acceleration ramps.
But during the project, which is expected to last until 2015, even those building the road said motorists can expect a white knuckle ride.
"Grip that wheel and drive as carefully as you can while you're in the construction zone," said Robert Hinkle, spokesman for North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners, the project developer.
The current barriers are likely to remain in place for 18 months, until new pavement is put down on each side of the road, said Lara Kohl, spokeswoman for Bluebonnet Contractors, the firm handling North Tarrant Express day-to-day construction.
As a result, even a minor accident could easily block the two lanes of traffic and shut down the freeway for an hour -- or more, if a fatal accident requires authorities to gather evidence and investigate more thoroughly.
No room for shoulders
Another tight spot is in Hurst, where concrete barriers are in place on Texas 121/183 near Hurstview Drive, leaving no room for shoulders -- or what old-school travelers may call a "breakdown lane." That area, also known as Airport Freeway, has three lanes of freeway traffic in each direction -- although with nearly 200,000 vehicles per day it is the most crowded corridor in Tarrant County.
To make matters worse, there are few nearby east-west highways or city streets for detours around accidents, so that travelers can continue their journey between the northern reaches of Fort Worth and Dallas.
The North Tarrant Express project offers the potential for even worse congestion than another nearby project, the DFW Connector in Grapevine.
That $1 billion project, which includes the makeover of Texas 114/121, has had many major crashes in recent months that have temporarily shut down all main lanes. But in the case of the DFW Connector, at least continuous frontage roads can be used as a relief valve for traffic. While it's not an ideal situation for local traffic, which is then forced to mingle with cross-region commuters, it's better than nothing.
Grapevine officials are aggressively enforcing a 50-mph speed limit in the work zone to reduce accidents caused by high-speed driving.
On the North Tarrant Express project, several sections of Loop 820 as well as Texas 121/183 lack continuous frontage roads. As a result, motorists unlucky enough to get stuck behind a crash could sit at a standstill, possibly for hours.
Police and fire officials in the corridor have taken note of the dangers and hold regular meetings with the contractors.
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796