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Once-deadly I-20 hill west of Fort Worth now safer

Accidents have dropped dramatically at Ranger Hill along Interstate 20, about 80 miles west of downtown Fort Worth, since the Texas Department lowered the 75 mph speed limit to 65 mph. The agency also deployed an electronic speed limit sign, so the speed limit can be lowered remotely if driving conditions deteriorate. (Gordon Dickson/Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Jan. 14, 2015)
Accidents have dropped dramatically at Ranger Hill along Interstate 20, about 80 miles west of downtown Fort Worth, since the Texas Department lowered the 75 mph speed limit to 65 mph. The agency also deployed an electronic speed limit sign, so the speed limit can be lowered remotely if driving conditions deteriorate. (Gordon Dickson/Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Jan. 14, 2015) Gordon Dickson/Fort Worth Star-Telegram

A stretch of highway that used to be one of the deadliest in Texas is quickly gaining a new reputation as one of the safest.

The area is Ranger Hill, a 4-mile portion of Interstate 20 about 11/2 hours west of downtown Fort Worth. Six people were killed in three crashes there in 2013 after the state Transportation Department raised the speed limit to 75 mph.

In November 2013, after thousands of residents in nearby cities, including Cisco, Eastland and Ranger, signed petitions demanding safety improvements at Ranger Hill, the state lowered the speed limit to 65 mph. More improvements came over the past year, including lighting towers and a taller concrete median barrier. The road, which has a steep 6 percent grade and a sharp curve, was resurfaced to improve traction.

Since the work, not a single fatal accident or even one with a serious injury has been logged, state records show. About 18,000 vehicles per day use that stretch of I-20, many of them tractor-trailers.

“It’s working. It is a whole lot safer,” said Danetra Dunn, who lives in Eastland and works at a local government office. Dunn helped gather the petition signatures in 2013.

“There are still some people who don’t abide by the speed limit and are going 75 or 80, but for the most part, there has been a drastic decrease in the number of wrecks we’ve had out there,” she said. “A lot of people are talking about it on Facebook, especially when we have bad weather, but now the comments are more positive than negative.”

High-tech speed limits

The Transportation Department is also deploying cutting-edge technology on Ranger Hill. It’s one of just three sites in the state where electronic signs are being used to display the speed limit, which can be lowered remotely to slow down traffic as driving conditions deteriorate.

Nearby electronic boards are used to convey messages to motorists about congestion, road work and weather, Transportation Department spokesman Nick Wade said.

The two other areas where variable-speed-limit signs are being tested in Texas are on I-35 in Temple and Loop 1604 in San Antonio, Wade said.

The Ranger Hill speed limits can be changed remotely at TransVISION, the department’s control center in Fort Worth, Wade said. Workers watch traffic on video cameras and monitor data from road sensors.

The speed limit at Ranger Hill was dropped below 65 mph 136 times from July 21 to Jan. 20, records show The technology permits limits as low as 30 mph.

“The variable-speed-limit system appropriately adjusts speed limits by using sensors and electronic signs,” Wade said. “The Texas A&M Transportation Institute is assisting TxDOT in the data collection and will analyze the data as part of the project evaluation.”

I-20 wrecks used to be a big subject of water-cooler talk in Eastland County. These days, Ranger Hill still comes up, but the comments are mostly an expression of gratitude that the road is safer, Eastland County Judge Rex Fields said.

An 18-wheeler recently lost control on the way down Ranger Hill and struck the new 54-inch-tall median barrier, Fields said. But the barrier did its job by keeping the truck from veering into oncoming traffic.

Residents are also excited that a safety rest area is being built at the top of Ranger Hill, giving fatigued drivers a chance to stop and providing a place for law officers to do paperwork.

Still, residents are pushing for more, Fields said. They would like the 6 percent grade and the S-shaped curve straightened out a bit. But they recognize that those improvements would likely cost tens of millions of dollars and would require taking private property to make room for new portions of the road.

Those improvements are under long-term consideration by the Transportation Department but are likely many years away. The state has spent roughly $3.2 million on improvements since November 2013.

“We’ve got to keep it going,” Fields said. “The improvements we have are great. I very much appreciate them lowering the speed limit. But that 6 percent grade is the highest grade in the state of Texas, and there’s a significant curve in the middle of that grade.

“Until we get that changed, we’re going to continue to have problems, especially when it’s icy.”

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson

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