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.