By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – They’ve been called ugly, expensive and unnecessary, but the cable barriers separating miles of Mississippi highway medians reduce collisions and save lives, according to the Federal Highway Administration and the Roadway Safety Foundation.
The national groups jointly awarded their 2011 Roadway Safety Infrastructure Improvement prize to the Mississippi Department of Transportation for its program to blanket state highway medians with cable barriers, MDOT announced Wednesday.
“The cable barrier initiative is something we are all really proud of,” said assistant state traffic engineer Jim Willis in a press release. “Mississippi has long struggled with fatalities and fatality rates. But we’ve been making good progress for the last five years.”
The program began roughly one decade ago and since has erected 220 miles of cable fencing – nearly half of it in Northeast Mississippi – at a cost of about $100,000 per mile.
Motorists in this region will notice it along U.S. 78 and U.S. 82, where the barrier extends the entire length the medians in the state, MDOT Maintenance Engineer Mark Holley of Tupelo.
Those projects were among the most recent, having started in November 2010 and completed one year later. In the approximately six weeks since then, MDOT has recorded 38 incidents in which the barriers have stopped out-of-control vehicles from crossing the median, Holley said.
The most recent incident occurred Tuesday in a three-vehicle wreck in Itawamba County, where the fence blocked a tractor trailer from entering oncoming traffic on U.S. 78.
MDOT doesn’t have statistics on how many “hits” the barriers took while under construction, referring those questions to Key Contractors of Meridian, which had the $9.1 million contract for the work.
An engineer from that company didn’t return a call for comment.
Willis said the barrier has a 92 percent success rate of preventing head-on collisions and noted no cross-median fatalities have occurred in places where barriers are present. But it’s too early to gauge its impact on overall state highway safety, according to Daniel B. Helms, assistant state safety engineer with MDOT.
Eventually, every divided highway in Mississippi will have cable barriers. Some 150 miles already have been identified for future phases of installation, and the agency is looking at more locations in Northeast Mississippi, Helms said.
But the plan has its critics. Several people have called MDOT to gripe about the appearance of the fences and question the cost and necessity of the project, Holley said. The state Highway Patrol also has complained that the fence restricts access of emergency vehicles to both sides of the highways.
Highway Patrol Sgt. Brian Mobley said it does pose an inconvenience for troopers but that it’s a small price to pay for safety.
“We’ll still enforce the law and issue citations,” he said. “We’ll just have to change our tactics.”