Pickup's messy mishap on Beltway takes out sign for exit

THE INTREPID COMMUTER

March 06, 1995

Ever wonder what happens when your pickup truck skids off an interstate highway and smacks into one of those big, gaudy green, overhead signs? Besides your headache, injuries and messed-up pickup, that is?

Some of you got an inkling on the drizzly night of Feb. 23, when the southside Beltway's outer loop was shut for short periods of time. That was so crews could take down the exit sign for Route 2 to Brooklyn, as well as two other signs and the steel truss that held them aloft.

You also might have experienced another dimension the next day, when you missed the same exit because the Brooklyn sign had vanished, leaving just four fat steel poles and a smaller yellow sign reminding exiting drivers to slow to 30 mph.

The story's unhappy ending, however, will be known best by the driver of a certain 1992 Toyota pickup.

About 5:20 p.m. Feb. 11, that motorist apparently tried to take the exit a bit in advance of where its pavement begins. The truck careened onto the grass and behind a guardrail before it slammed into one of the two steel poles that held up one end of the sign structure.

The driver was lucky to walk away. The truck was seriously damaged and had to be towed away. The sign was, well, trashed.

The impact put a 2-inch-deep dent in the pole, made of steel three-eighths of an inch thick, and tore apart a few inches of the weld that runs the length of the pole.

Vibrations from the Beltway's traffic would likely lengthen that tear, and the State Highway Administration couldn't just fix it on the spot, said SHA spokeswoman Valerie Burnette Edgar.

Here's another aspect of such crashes, too: Expecting that no one will argue that the sign was at fault, the State Highway Administration is preparing to politely ask the motorist's insurance company to help pay for an entirely new overhead sign -- that's $30,000.

"People don't realize how big these things are," Ms. Edgar says.

On that particular sign, each of the four poles is 25 feet tall, holding up a truss of more than 40 feet holding up three 4-foot-by-10-foot signs.

In fact, an average of about five or six such signs become statistics each year on Baltimore-area interstates, Ms. Edgar reports. All are fixed or replaced under an umbrella contract with several companies that covers broken signs and a host of other emergency highway repairs.

"In general, our taxes do have to eat up some of that cost," says Ms. Edgar, explaining that unlike the driver who ran afoul of the Brooklyn sign, drivers don't always pop up again later in the day.

If SHA knows who the driver is, and the driver has insurance, the insurance company usually pays up, but not the full price of replacement.

That's because SHA likes to replace its busted up property with a later model, which is literally shinier because of its improved reflective qualities.

If SHA knows who the driver is, and the driver does not have insurance, though, watch out.

"It then goes to the Department of Budget and Fiscal Planning Central Collection Unit, which sounds ominous, I know," Ms. Edgar says. Considering the fact that the unit has the authority to garnish tax refunds, it is pretty ominous.

Oh, the new sign is scheduled to be up before month's end.

Which means the Beltway's inner loop at Route 2 will be closed a few times again, but only for 15 minutes at a time and only at night, between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Meanwhile, you won't have to miss the exit as some may have the day after the signs were removed. Rain postponed by a day the posting of two skinny vertical temporary signs on the upright poles. When it rains, it pours, Katherine Cervi of Elkridge told Intrepid Commuter. Even light rain was a real problem on U.S. 1 just south of the Howard-Baltimore County line.

"Twice I've had problems with my car sliding when I've braked in the rain, and I'm wondering if it's related to the railroad tracks above the area?" she asked.

We had a problem. We had a suspect. We needed some investigators of the highest caliber. We tracked down two: engineer Herman Hunt from the State Highway Administration and Harold Woody from CSX Transportation Inc.

For his part, Mr. Hunt went to the scene shortly after receiving Intrepid Commuter's plea for help. It was his road, U.S. 1, and he knew it like he knew the page numbers on his Howard County atlas.

But he saw nothing wrong with the road's drainage, so he turned to Ms. Cervi's suspicion.

Meanwhile, Mr. Woody was dispatched by his headquarters to get to the bottom of this drainage mystery. The bridge was dry, but so was one of its drains.

And, so it was that Mr. Woody and Mr. Hunt met on that dreary, cold bridge. The drain that was dry on one end was clogged at the other by "grass, dirt, leaves, that type of debris," reported SHA spokesman Chuck Brown. Meaning, indeed, that water was spilling onto the road below.

Mr. Hunt's been checking that area regularly and hasn't noticed additional moisture on the road. Clean drain. Case closed. Or is it?

"The best test is going to be when we get the warmer temperatures and the thawing of the moisture locked in the ground," cautioned Mr. Brown.

When that happens, be assured that it won't get by a couple of trained transportation professionals who know what to do when drains get clogged.

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