Your Commute

November 24, 2013

Drivers thankful for a (somewhat) safer I-20 on Ranger Hill

Eastland County residents pushed for a lower speed limit on the treacherous stretch west of Fort Worth.

As thousands of Texans hit the road this week for holiday trips, Danetra Dunn wants them to know about the dangers of Ranger Hill.

About 80 miles west of downtown Fort Worth, the several-mile-long hill on Interstate 20 features lush fall foliage and a panorama of pure country.

But Ranger Hill isn’t a place to be admired; it’s a chunk of countryside that shatters families and erases dreams — with eight fatalities this year.

“I think it’s the depiction of the curve, of the hill, along with the speed,” said Dunn, who works in a local government office. “And another major impact is weather. The accidents occur more in rain and fog.”

In icy weather, the stretch of freeway defines treacherous.

But Dunn and many other residents of Eastland County and surrounding areas have banded together to do something about it. More than 4,500 people signed a pair of petitions — one made of old-fashioned paper, the other online — demanding that state and local officials do something to improve Ranger Hill safety.

Last week, after hearing from the group, the Texas Transportation Commission agreed to reduce the 75-mph speed limit to 65 mph immediately — and the new speed limit signs are already up about 4 miles on both sides of Ranger Hill.

The commission, which oversees the Texas Transportation Department, also agreed to take other steps within several months to improve safety, including better lighting and taller concrete barriers.

Residents say they won’t quit until the speed limit is dropped even further — to 55 mph — and until the 6 percent grade and elongated S-shaped curve on the hill are mitigated. Those long-term improvements could take many years and cost millions of dollars.

Thanksgiving by car

Highway safety is an especially crucial issue this time of year, as a roughly six-week period of Thanksgiving, Christmas and other holiday-related travel begins.

About 43.4 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend — slightly fewer than the 44 million people who traveled last year, the AAA auto club says. The two busiest travel days are typically the Wednesday before and the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Nationwide, nine of every 10 trips is made by car — with air, bus, train and other modes collectively accounting for a much smaller percentage.

In Texas, an estimated 3.1 million drivers can expect to pay an average of $3.01 per gallon for regular unleaded gasoline — 15 cents cheaper than last Thanksgiving.

“Analysts expect gas prices to be at their lowest levels for this holiday since 2010,” AAA spokesman Doug Shupe said in a statement.

In all, about 3.4 million Texans are expected to travel by all transportation modes, including air.

75 mph - bad idea

About 18,000 vehicles per day venture up and down Ranger Hill — and roughly half are trucks. Although a change in state law several years ago made it possible to increase the speed limit to 75 mph, in hindsight it wasn’t a good idea, Eastland County Judge Rex Fields said.

“I think the physics of an 80,000-pound, fully loaded truck going down a 6 percent grade at 75 mph down a pretty sharp curve, I think we’re overwhelming the adhesion and traction of those trucks,” Fields told transportation commissioners Friday at a meeting in Tyler.

Eight people have been killed on the road in 2013, Fields said.

Some of them were passers-by, unaware of the danger in the area. Others lived in Ranger, Eastland and other area cities, and got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Virginia Ann Hutto, 24, of nearby Cisco was killed Oct. 14, after a vehicle towing a trailer jackknifed while trying to avoid an unrelated accident ahead, and hit her vehicle.

Traffic was shut down on I-20 because of the crash, which involved nine vehicles — including big rigs, according to news reports.

“Our daughter lost her life due to a truck driving too fast,” Danny Hutto, himself a former truck driver, told transportation commissioners. He urged state officials not to hesitate in addressing improvements to Ranger Hill.

“Do not put it off another day,” he said at Friday’s meeting, “because the weather is calling for ice.”

In May, four people were killed — including an El Paso-area couple and their 3-year-old son — in a fiery crash that involved an 18-wheeler that lost traction and jumped the concrete barrier.

Hugo Ulloa, 34, and his wife, Erika, and young son, Max, died when their Honda was crushed by the truck, which crashed through the median.

Now, a small cross-shaped memorial remains on the westbound side of the road at the bottom of Ranger Hill, with faded flowers and solar-powered yard lights to draw attention to the tiny display.

‘Heartbreaking ... stories’

On Thursday, the Transportation Commission agreed to spend $3.2 million in all on improvements to Ranger Hill. The money will come from voter-approved Proposition 14 bond proceeds, some of which remain unspent because previously approved projects came in under budget.

“We have experienced some under-runs on some of those projects and are using some of those funds on safety projects,” said John Barton, transportation department deputy executive director. “Your department and transportation staff have recognized this issue is important and needs to be addressed.”

In addition to the lower speed limit, the department agreed to install lighting, resurface the pavement with a higher-traction material, improve pavement markings and replace existing concrete barriers that are about 32 inches tall with a 54-inch-tall version.

At least 127 crashes have occurred on Ranger Hill since 2008, officials said, citing state records.

Transportation commissioners expressed condolences to those who had lost loved ones on Ranger Hill.

“It is heartbreaking to hear these stories, and we take this very seriously,” commission Chairman Ted Houghton of El Paso said.

Commissioner Jeff Moseley of Houston added: “I travel this corridor. I just wonder if lowering the speed limit to 65 is enough.”

Although the paper petition was signed mostly by local residents, the online petition drew attention from many out-of-state residents, said Joni Kelar, an area teacher.

“We’ve had signatures all the way from California and even Hawaii — and truckers from Canada signed that petition after passing through that area on the interstate,” she said.

Residents won’t stop trying to attract attention to the dangers of Ranger Hill until the 6 percent grade is lowered — perhaps to 4 percent — and the curve is reduced, Kelar said.

State and local officials, however, have given ballpark estimates that those tasks could cost $22 million to $94 million, depending on which of several options are selected.

“Grade lowering,” Kelar said, “that’s the long-term goal we’re working toward.”

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