Interstate highway closures, necessary or extreme?

I-15 closure during standoff, Hurricane, UT Feb. 6, 2012 | Photo by Troy Hoskins, St. George News

SOUTHERN UTAH – Unscheduled interstate highway closures, for “safety” reasons, seem to be happening more frequently and almost always, now, involve all lanes of traffic in both directions. This practice imposes a severe inconvenience on those who use the highway for their primary transportation route.

There is no policy regarding unscheduled highway closures. “The Sheriff’s Office does not have a policy regarding road closures,” said Detective Nate Abbott of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

Utah Department of Transportation does not have specific polices, but does have “practices” that have been established, UDOT spokesman Kevin Kitchen said.

“Emergency closures are carried out by the highway patrol or local police, and because of the nature of these closures, there are not specific policies regarding them.”

Recently, due to a standoff between Jason Alley and Washington County law enforcement and emergency responders of various agencies on February 6, both directions of I-15 were closed between the Toquerville and Hurricane exits. Traffic was routed around the closure through Toquerville, La Verkin and Hurricane—for nine hours, while officers negotiated with Alley.

“If we were to respond to a hazmat spill, major traffic accident, wildfire, or any other incident that threatened the lives of those traveling the road or highway, we would close the road to ensure the safety of those citizens,” said Abbott.

On January 10, 2012, a Florida man robbed a Nevada State Bank in Mesquite then fled north on I-15. He was pulled over near the Utah border and shot himself in the head as police approached. This triggered a decision to close the highway in both directions for about 12 hours. The fugitive was dead, his vehicle was not on the highway and he posed no danger to anyone. Still, the highway was closed for hours overnight, forcing hundreds of trucks and thousands of cars to spend the night in Cedar City, St George, or Mesquite. This closure decision, however, was an Arizona decision, although both Utah and Nevada were in the loop.

In 2011, both north and southbound lanes of I-15 were closed between Mesquite and the Logandale, Nevada exit (Mormon Mesa), because a semi-truck carrying ammonium nitrate fertilizer attempted an illegal crossing of the median and tipped over. There was no fire, no explosion, and no injury, but traffic in both directions was halted for seven hours, in the middle of the summer.

Both Nevada Dept of Transportation and UDOT officials declare “we own the road, all closure decisions are ours” – but these “closures” are scheduled closures. The unscheduled closures are the decision of local police or highway patrol, and they have authority to close the interstate at their discretion.

The closure of the interstate is a major inconvenience, not to mention costly, to thousands of drivers, truckers, and residents who must use it. Often, I-15 is the only option for travel. It is the only route, in most cases, along much of the I-15 corridor. On Mormon Mesa between Mesquite and Logandale, there is no alternative route, and although there is one alternate route around the Virgin River Gorge, it’s a bad one that most drivers choose to avoid.

The reason for the lengthy closures including multiple lanes of traffic, Kitchen said is that “public safety is a primary concern.” There appears to be a stronger reaction towards total closures when any safety issue is involved. Kitchen admitted nobody, including UDOT, is happy about lengthy closures, but public safety will dictate the extent and length of the closure.

The Mormon Mesa closure was particularly curious. The semi was just off the shoulder of the southbound lanes, and the northbound lanes were a good hundred yards away. No lanes were blocked, nothing spilled onto the highway. It was August, it was extremely hot and drivers were forced to turn off their engines and just sit and wait for the highway to open.

As for the Hurricane-to-Toquerville closure, residents of Toquerville were faced with virtual bumper to bumper semi truck-traffic through their little town for nine hours. School buses had difficulty navigating SR-17 and SR-9 that day, not to mention any emergency vehicles that may have been called upon. The highway was closed for “safety” reasons because Jason Alley showed a gun in the standoff on I-15, though he never used it or fired it. There was concern for the safety of the two sons he had with him.

Nevada’s NDOT  PIO, Scott Magruder, said  “law enforcement typically overrides NDOT. The Nevada Highway Patrol does have authority to close a highway without having NDOT’s permission,“ I agree both closures (Mormon Mesa and Virgin River Gorge) were longer than what seemed necessary.” Magruder said.

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Copyright 2012 St. George News.

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5 Comments

  • Tyler February 27, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    I think for all lanes of a major interstate freeway to be completely closed should take something almost catastrophic (whatever that may be). Only because those highways are the veins or lifeblood to our cities for food supply, and other major time-sensitive goods…Think about it, St George has I-15, no railroads, a little used airport, no harbor, no major river for transport. We rely on trucks or we wouldn’t even be a city.

  • Tim Taylor February 27, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    While I share Rex’s frustration with the IDIOTS whose actions force law enforcement to close highways, Rex sure doesn’t propose any solutions.

    In terms of a barricaded gunman type situation, it’s very easy for me to just say that after trying to peacefully resolve the situation for an hour, police sharpshooters should simply end the situation by shooting & killing the “suspect,” moving his car off the road & getting the highway back open. There certainly were sharpshooters there during the I-15/Jason Alley fiasco. But no decent officer is going to take someone else’s life due to hundreds or thousands of other motorists being inconvenienced. Sometimes, I wish they would though.

    I wonder how many people were late for important things like doctor’s appointments, picking up their children from school or day-care (& having to pay penalties), court appearances, etc. all due to some jackass having a mental breakdown? In Jason Alley’s case, he also directly endangered lives during the pursuit phase of his antics.

    People are no longer afraid of the police or criminal law, so how about instead, members of the public who were inconvenienced by Jason Alley’s actions, or the illegal action of the truck-driver whose trailer overturned with hazardous materials inside sue these people in civil court? It’d be a waste of time with Jason Alley –a homeless dirtbag, but perhaps not so for the trucker (& his company), so in the long-term people might start to think twice about their actions.

    I understand that law enforcement needs to operate with the objective of safety in-mind, but as a citizen & taxpayer, I do demand that they start to put more thought into the safety & convenience of the general public, versus one person, holed-up in their car with a firearm. As it is, Jason Alley’s actions DID result in the death of one of the responders (Jeff Dial). The police were concerned for the two kids Alley had with him, but in the future if it’s just one bad-guy in a car or house & the public is inconvenienced, make a brief effort to settle things peacefully, but then lob tear-gas into the car or house & FORCE the situation to end quickly. This can be done without jeopardizing officer-safety any more than it already is at-risk at a barricaded gunman scene.

  • Matt February 27, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    Just a few problems I have with this article,

    1) “On January 10, 2012, a Florida man robbed a Nevada State Bank in Mesquite then fled north on I-15. He was pulled over near the Utah border and shot himself in the head as police approached. This triggered a decision to close the highway in both directions for about 12 hours. The fugitive was dead, his vehicle was not on the highway and he posed no danger to anyone. Still, the highway was closed for hours overnight, forcing hundreds of trucks and thousands of cars to spend the night in Cedar City, St George, or Mesquite. This closure decision, however, was an Arizona decision, although both Utah and Nevada were in the loop.”

    -The freeway was shut down because “due to the potential threat posed by hazardous materials left in the car of Troy Eugene Williams, the man suspected of robbing the Nevada Bank and Trust in Mesquite.” Yes in the end there turned out to be nothing in the car but at the time there was reason to believe that there was a deadly substance in the car. so the subject did pose a threat that completely warranted the complete closer of I-15

    2) “The Mormon Mesa closure was particularly curious. The semi was just off the shoulder of the southbound lanes, and the northbound lanes were a good hundred yards away. No lanes were blocked, nothing spilled onto the highway.”

    -The EGR (emergency response guide), which gives information on Haz Mat, says that a truck involved in a accident carrying ammonium nitrate fertilizer would require the evacuation of at 100 meters (330 feet) or 110 yards with would be both sides of the freeway, and since the truck tipped over it completely warrants again the complete shut down of the freeway mostly due to the risk of fire now, which would require a evacuation of 1/2 mile in all directions

    Yes the closer of a freeway is a major inconvenience but it doesn’t happen everyday so when it does just suck it up and quit complaining. like Abbott said:

    “If we were to respond to a hazmat spill, major traffic accident, wildfire, or any other incident that threatened the lives of those traveling the road or highway, we would close the road to ensure the safety of those citizens,” said Abbott.

    Safety first, rather be late then not show up at all

  • bob February 28, 2012 at 6:12 am

    Thank you Matt. I was getting upset reading the article with key facts left out on purpose in an attempt to make controversy out of nothing.

  • Kelli February 28, 2012 at 10:18 am

    Yes, lets blame the police instead of the selfish truck driver who tried to ILLEGALLY cross a median. We’d be reading a whole different article if that bank robber had a trunk full of explosives that blew up right as a minivan full of children went past it. I can see the headline now: “Why didn’t police close the road??”

    Thanks to the commenters who provided the full picture.

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