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SUNDAY EDITION | Kentucky seeks federal OK for ‘Spaghetti Junction’ changes after truck crashes

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SUNDAY EDITION | Kentucky seeks federal OK for ‘Spaghetti Junction’ changes after truck crashes
Spaghetti Junction ramp crash

A crash on the ramp to I-65 South in the Kennedy Interchange 

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Just after 9 p.m. on a clear and dry Monday in late June, a tractor trailer toppled over while trying to navigate a highway curve not far from Louisville Slugger Field.

At least one person was injured when the truck crashed in the heart of the city’s “Spaghetti Junction,” traffic data show. The ramp, which gathers vehicles exiting I-64 West and I-71 South and sends them to I-65 South, reopened around 6 a.m. the next morning.

Louisvillians used to call the ramp “dead man’s curve” because of the sharp bend that connected the interstates. But even after the junction’s $597 million makeover during the Ohio River Bridges Project in 2016, the area remains a troublesome spot.

The June 24 wreck was the fourth on the ramp during that month alone and the eighth over a two-month period, according to a WDRB News review of collision records and reports by the TRIMARC traffic monitoring service.

Those incidents on the curve highlight how, even after the state spent vast sums of money, the interchange can still be challenging. Although highway officials added new signs and pavement markings two years ago following a spate of wrecks, they are looking at more changes.

Citing the recent truck crashes, the state agency says it submitted new plans for the junction to the Federal Highway Administration in late June in an effort to make the ramp safer. 

“I don’t think you can ever eliminate all crashes because driver behavior plays a part in that,” cabinet spokeswoman Andrea Clifford said. “But we are wanting to reduce the crashes in that area as best as we can.”

The proposal still needs federal approval, but Clifford said the state wants to place overhead signs at the ramp, mark the pavement so that drivers will have more time to maneuver as the ramp’s lanes narrow, and add new interstate logos on the road’s surface.

One other possibility is to put lights on signs that warn truckers that tractor trailers and other tall vehicles are at risk of tipping over.

Crash on I-65 South ramp

Crash on I-65 South ramp from I-71S/I-64W, December 2018 Source: Google maps

Clifford said there are no plans to rebuild any structures, and state officials don’t believe the ramps’ design is flawed. But the cabinet intends to repave the I-64 West/I-65 South ramp because its surface has been scarred by the wrecks.

And she said the entire junction will be reviewed as well.

“The bulk of the changes go with that particular ramp,” she said. “We’re looking at the entire interchange from all different directions just to make sure the pavement markings are what they need to be.”

There is no timeline for a response from the Highway Administration, she said, but the work could be done as early as this year.

‘It could be improved more’

The redesigned junction was the most expensive piece of the $2.3 billion bridges project, which also added two new spans across the river and reinforced the I-65 Kennedy Bridge. Kentucky oversaw the work.

It was meant to ease longstanding problems in an area where Interstates 64, 65 and 71 converge just east of downtown Louisville.

In 1979, for example, there were at least 172 collisions in and near the junction, with four people killed and 35 injured, The Courier-Journal reported at the time. By 1992, the newspaper found, Louisville police data ranked the interchange’s 245 crashes as the most in the city.

Glue truck overturns

Overturned glue truck on the ramp to I-65S, 2017 

During the bridges work that began in 2013, construction crews added more than 40 new overpasses and ramps, replacing many that were in “poor” condition. The new design was aimed at fixing dangerous sections where drivers had to suddenly merge or weave from one side of the highway to the other.

Jesse Milligan, a trucker from Newcomerstown, Ohio, remembers downtown Louisville as being “small and tight” in the old junction. “You sure didn’t want to go in there in the morning during rush hour,” he said.

“Since then, I think it’s been improved,” he said. But he added: “I think it could be improved more. I was thinking the signs were confusing.”

But has the junction gotten safer?

In 2012, the last full year before construction started, there were about 270 crashes in the junction. Those numbers, however, include about six weeks during which the I-64 Sherman Minton Bridge was closed for repairs. (The downtown I-65 Kennedy Bridge was the main interstate crossing between Kentucky and Indiana.)

WDRB reviewed crashes in and around the junction since the bridges project opened by using figures from Kentucky State Police’s online collision database, focusing on I-65 north of Jefferson Street, including the new bridges; I-64 between Waterfront Park and Louisville City FC’s soccer stadium in Butchertown; and I-71 approaching the junction.

The review analyzed a period starting in 2017, the first full year of the renovated interchange, through the end of June of this year.

SPAGHETTI JUNCTION CRASHES, 2017 - June 30, 2019

Source: Kentucky State Police; WDRB News analysis 

The data show that there were 80 crashes in 2017, increasing to 90 in 2018. Through June 30, there had been 35 wrecks. By comparison, there were 42 crashes during the first six months of 2017 and 37 through the same period last year.

But those figures may not tell the whole story. TRIMARC – the traffic service that aerospace and defense company Northrop Grumman operates for Kentucky state government -- has documented crashes in the junction on its Twitter account that don’t appear in the state police database.

The Transportation Cabinet says it relies on the state police data. It does not keep statistics showing collision rates before and after the bridges project was built because those so-called “crash rate factors” aren’t a good measure for interchanges, Clifford said in an email.

She said making comparisons between interchanges is difficult because of differences in the numbers lanes, layout and traffic levels.  

But to Ed Stephens, a retired truck driver and instructor at Truck America Training in Shepherdsville, “Spaghetti Junction” is “better than it used to be.”

The new design has taken out the sharp curves, he said, and he believes the state’s plans to add signs and pavement markings can only help, especially out-of-town drivers who aren’t familiar with the area.

Stephens said he advises new tractor trailer drivers to go five miles per hour slower than posted speed limits. In his experience, speed is the main factor in rollover crashes.

“On all ramps there’s a safe speed,” he said. “If you obey that speed you’re in pretty good shape.”

Reach reporter Marcus Green at 502-585-0825, mgreen@wdrb.com, on Twitter or on Facebook. Copyright 2019 WDRB Media. All rights reserved.

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Marcus Green joined WDRB News in 2013 after 12 years as a staff writer at the Louisville Courier-Journal. He reports on transportation, development and local and state government.