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Official fears stretch of Buffalo intersection will turn deadly

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - As the state struggles for money to build and repair roads, a dangerous situation has developed on the unfinished portion of U.S. 35 in Putnam County.  

Last Friday, officials had to close the Buffalo Bridge, officially known as W.Va. 869, and a four-mile section of U.S. 35 after a tractor-trailer carrying the disinfectant glutaraldehyde overturned at the intersection.

It was not the first tractor-trailer crash to occur there, and officials don't believe it will be the last.

"It's going to continue to happen," said Frank Chapman, Putnam County emergency services director.

Eight crashes occurred at the intersection between 2010 and 2012, according to state Department of Transportation data.

Chapman thinks it's only a matter of time until someone is killed.  

"We've been fortunate - I hate it for the cattle, but we've had some cattle killed, some produce - but we're going to get something bad," he said.

Fraziers Bottom resident Randy Lipscomb, 57, has been driving trucks for his company, L.R. Lipscomb LLC, since 1974.

He said the intersection is a nightmare for truck drivers.

"It's a very poor setup," Lipscomb said. "For the amount of traffic going through there, you've got far too many intersections all at once."

Within the space of a quarter-mile, drivers come off a hill into a sharp turn at the bridge and just after the span must negotiate an intersection with W.Va. 817.

"It just seems that once they drop off that four-lane and come down on that section of two-lane, from there to the other end of it, it's just bad," Kimble said.

Lipscomb said signs are posted to warn truck drivers of the turn and ask them to slow to 40 mph. But he said many drivers don't heed them.  

"If the tractor-trailers would slow down to the speed limit they have posted, it wouldn't be a problem," he said.

He said truckers hit the tricky stretch accustomed to the 65 mph limit on the preceding four-lane section of the highway. Newcomers especially don't realize how quickly they have to slow down to make the turn safely.

"Five miles an hour too fast and you're SOL," Lipscomb said.

Part of the problem is the U.S. 35-Buffalo Bridge intersection was not supposed to be a permanent one.

In June 2009, officials opened a nine-mile, four-lane section of U.S. 35 from Interstate 64 to about a mile from the Buffalo Bridge.

There the road becomes two lanes and diverts to merge with W.Va. 817 near the bridge.

Highways officials had hoped to begin expansion of the final 14-mile portion of U.S. 35 after that four-lane section was opened, but the project was placed on indefinite hold when lawmakers rejected a financing plan involving tolls in early 2011.

Although the toll plan failed, state highways officials still are looking for ways to fund construction of the final four-lane section.  

And since completion of U.S. 35 remains a priority, officials hesitate to spend money on significant changes to the existing Buffalo Bridge intersection.

"At this time, there are no plans to make any major changes to the intersection of the new stretch of U.S. 35 and the Buffalo Bridge," said Carrie Bly, spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation.

But Bly said that doesn't mean engineers aren't working to improve safety at the intersection.

"The WVDOH Traffic Engineering Division continues to monitor crash data and discuss the placement of more signage or safety measures along the roadway," she said.

Bly said one option could be placing sensors in the road to detect trucks approaching at higher speeds. The sensors would activate lights and signage warning the driver to slow down.

Lipscomb said that might work to a degree.

"If they would put more warning lights and warning signs at the top of the hill - something flashing - it might help," he said.

Writer Kara Moore contributed to this report.

Contact writer Jared Hunt at business@dailymail.com or 304-348-4836. 

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