Light poles along I-25 project may create hazard

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – A potentially dangerous design oversight in the nearly $20 million interchange project at I-25 and US 550 has forced federal and state officials into quick action.

Light poles along the interstate portion of the project where I-25 runs beneath the US 550 overpass could create a hazard for drivers seeking shelter during severe weather. Especially during high wind events like Thursday evening commute, visibility can be reduced to just a few yards. Drivers pulling off the road where the posted speed limit is 70 mph may not see the poles in their way until it’s too late to avoid them.

The project – now in its 11th month – is designed to increase traffic capacity, particularly along US 550. Engineers say the redesigned exit and entrance ramps along I-25  will also create a safer roadway for both commuters and heavy truck traffic.

The interchange, which the Mid-Region Grande Council of Governments estimates handles more than 100,000 vehicles each day, is part of a massive road-widening project involving both I-25 and US 550. The interchange serves as a gateway to both the Albuquerque metro area and to the Four Corners via the most heavily traveled highway in the northwest corner of the state.

Related: Traffic at the Interchange Today and Predicted in 2035

The light posts in question fell within what highway designers call the “clear zone” – a section of the road shoulder drivers can use to gain control of their car if something goes wrong. In fact, all the lights along the interstate in the construction area stand within the clear zone.

What’s more, federal guidelines for roadside lighting specifically say “poles should be placed in such a way that they do not present a hazard to errant motor vehicles.”

But despite what might seem like a glaring oversight, officials at both the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the New Mexico Department of Transportation told KRQE News 13 that the poles – and their placement – were within industry standards.

“The lights that we’re talking about today have the ability to shear off if they’re impacted,” said Timothy Parker, NMDOT Region 3 Engineer. The so-called “breakaway” lights are mentioned in industry and federal manuals detailing proper safety precautions.

Still, Parker acknowledged the fact that it’s impossible to predict where those 40-foot poles will land if they’re struck by a vehicle. They could as easily fall into traffic or on another vehicle as they could topple harmlessly to the ground.

And, if a motorcycle rider — perhaps the most likely motorist to seek shelter under a bridge — were to run into a pole, the results could be deadly.

Within just days of being asked about potential safety issues by KRQE News 13, both the FHWA and NMDOT said that the light poles are better off being torn down and erected in a spot further from the road and out of harm’s way when it comes to motorists trying to escape inclement weather under the overpass.

“We’re gonna take those two light fixtures and move them behind the concrete wall barrier and tweak them a little bit so that we have consistent lighting. That’s the big thing is having lighting up and down that corridor that’s consistent.”

Indeed, all the posts along the stretch of I-25 affected by construction were almost exactly the same distance from the lanes of travel as engineers sought to provide the even lighting conditions that can be just as important to safe travel as a shoulder that’s free of obstructions.

NMDOT said the new locations for the light poles will mean they’ll have to either extend the lights further toward the lanes of travel on I-25 or re-aim the beams to provide similar lighting conditions.

The state agency said the cost of repositioning the light poles will be borne by the FHWA, which deemed the move important enough to expend federal dollars.

Meanwhile, the project is already behind schedule. With a start date in March of last year, construction was supposed to be completed by November 6, 2013. But once delays stretched into the winter, the contractor on the project has been forced to take care of smaller items while waiting for warmer weather to allow for a final layer of traction-enhancing pavement to be poured.

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