Arkansas Highway Officials Hear Complaints on Poor Winter Storm Response

By CHRISTINA HUYNH | March 11, 2014

Legislators alarmed by complaints from motorists who spent hours stranded on a pair of icy interstates in eastern Arkansas want state highway officials to explain their response, or lack of response, as sleet and snow piled up.

“I’m not trying to take anybody’s side on this, but there’s a lot of things that we need to hear,” said Republican Sen. Bill Sample, chairman of the Senate’s Transportation, Technology and Legislative Affairs Committee.

Legislators will open two days of hearings Tuesday.

Winter weather raked much of Arkansas a week ago. The icy weather made roads slick statewide, but Interstates 40 and 55 became choked with traffic that couldn’t also negotiate a mix of construction zones and jackknifed tractor-trailers. Roads in adjacent states didn’t have the same problems.

“It was frustrating that the roads were very clear in Tennessee, but as soon as you got to Arkansas, there was ice on the ground,” said Brennan Taylor, a Vanderbilt nursing school student traveling from Nashville to Little Rock. “As soon as I got to the bridge in West Memphis, traffic grinded to a halt. I didn’t expect it.”

Taylor said her usual six-hour trip took 18 hours instead, and she was not alone.

A Notre Dame student, Laura Livingston, traveling back to Indiana from Louisiana collided with a tractor-trailer on the icy interstate and the trooper working her accident used camouflage duct tape from the trunk of her car to reconnect a section of the car’s bumper so she could finish her journey – after a break for sleep.

“I couldn’t drive anymore because it was scary and I was tired,” Livingston said.

Gov. Mike Beebe has criticized the storm response by the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, saying it was too slow when dispatching crews to clear the sleet-coated highways.

“A lot of things were beyond their control,” Beebe said. “The sleet came down fast and they were in construction areas. But there were a lot of things that probably weren’t beyond their control.”

Two state senators, Keith Ingram and Johnny Key, who heard from constituents, said in a letter to Sample that legislative hearings were appropriate.

“It’s important while this is fresh in our memory to review the actions that the highway department took and to look to the future to see what we can do better,” said Ingram, a Democrat from West Memphis. State police have also been asked to participate.

The Arkansas State Highway Commission is expected to meet as well, said Danny Straessle, a spokesman for the highway department. He said that, before the March 2 storm, highway crews had pre-treated bridges and overpasses with a mixture meant to slow ice accumulation on roads and create traction.

“The rate of sleet that came down pretty much rendered any pretreatment that we did ineffective,” he said.

Meteorologist John Robinson of the National Weather Service said that, in certain areas in central, northern and northeastern Arkansas, sleet did accumulate quickly.

“There were some places that clearly had an inch of sleet in one hour, which is a very, very high rate of sleet,” Robinson said.

Highway department Director Scott Bennett has declined comment.

Republican Congressman Rick Crawford, of the 1st Congressional District, missed a vote in Washington, D.C. on a flood insurance bill that he co-sponsored. He was unable to catch two flights to the nation’s capital because of the standstill traffic on both Interstates 55 and 40.

“I know it’s frustrating for anyone involved … I share the frustration as well,” Crawford said.

(Associated Press reporter Andrew DeMillo contributed to this story.)

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