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Texas leads nation in fatalities on insufficient roads

🕐 8 min read

Mark Niquette and Rodney Yap (c) 2014, Bloomberg News.

Gus Pando lost his mother last year in a crash at an intersection where a county road crossed four lanes of vehicles barreling by at 75 mph. At the same Odessa, Texas, junction in August, a family friend was killed in a wreck when the driver of a Jeep smashed into his minivan, a day after new stop signs were installed.

The state’s initial plans called for an overpass at East Yukon Road and State Loop 338 to help avoid just such fatalities. The Odessa overpass, which has never been funded, is part of an estimated $500 million that local transportation officials say is needed to reduce congestion and improve safety on the region’s roads.

“It’s terrifying to drive around in this city,” said Pando, 25. “You’re almost safer living somewhere else.”

There’s good reason to be worried in this part of West Texas, where an influx of workers at oil fields in Odessa and neighboring Midland is generating traffic on a road system not built for it. Fifty-nine people died in crashes in Odessa and surrounding Ector County last year, including Pando’s mother and three others in accidents at Yukon Road and Loop 338, state data show. That’s a 157 percent increase since 2009.

While speeding and driver error played a role in many wrecks, the increasing fatalities in the Odessa region show the deadly consequences of insufficient transportation investment, said Ector County Judge Susan Redford, chairwoman of the Midland Odessa Transportation Organization board. Odessa illustrates the nation’s failure to fix its infrastructure: The quality of U.S. roadways is bad and getting worse, with the World Economic Forum ranking them 16th worldwide, down from eighth five years earlier.

Reversing the slide would pay off in employment as well. The Federal Highway Administration, which says $170 billion a year is needed to improve performance and conditions on U.S. roadways, has estimated that each $1 billion in federal highway and transit investment would support 13,000 jobs for one year.

Texas alone falls $4 billion short each year for what it needs to maintain the system it has because, as a state transportation committee noted, current funding levels are “unacceptable.”

“People are dying because of the infrastructure,” said Jami Owen, a Midland resident who pushed to get a local highway expanded after her spouse, Mark, perished in a 2009 head-on crash. “My husband died because of the infrastructure.”

Dangerous roads worsened by a lack of investment contributed to the 33,561 U.S. highway deaths in 2012, just as a shortage of interstate rest areas for sleep-deprived truckers may have led to some of the more than 4,000 deaths that occur each year in accidents involving large trucks.

Texas, the second most-populous state with two-thirds the residents of California, had the most traffic fatalities in 2012. It tied for 11th with New Mexico in the rate of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said.

Drivers in the 12-county Odessa district were 2.5 times more likely to be killed in crashes in 2010 than the rest of Texas on average, according to Midland-Odessa Transportation Alliance, a business-backed organization in the region.

Funding for highway construction and maintenance in Texas has declined to 0.31 percent of the gross state product from as much as 0.61 percent in 1988. That’s because spending hasn’t kept pace with a growing number of people and vehicles, according to data compiled by Ray Perryman of the Perryman Group, an economic and financial-analysis firm in Waco.

An increasing number of oilfield trucks are mixing with pickups and passenger cars on a 1950s-era system of once-rural farm roads and interchanges. The average annual daily vehicle count in the area has increased, and with it, the number of fatal crashes, according to Texas Transportation Department data.

“We’re just outgrowing it so quickly,” Ector County Sheriff’s Sgt. Gary Duesler said. “Places that before would have a four-way stop sign, now they actually need stop lights there — and of course, there’s no money to do it.”

The state, which has been run by Gov. Rick Perry, R, for almost 14 years, has been reluctant to raise taxes. In the last two decades, the purchasing power of state fuel levies, frozen during that time, has dropped from more than 18 cents a gallon to about 7 cents as more fuel-efficient cars require less gas — even as the number of vehicles and residents has increased, said David Ellis, a researcher at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

The population of the Odessa metropolitan area has risen by almost 60,000 during the past decade to 182,000, and it’s projected to top 250,000 by 2031, according to a 2014 report by the Perryman Group. The boom in drilling with hydraulic fracturing has boosted employment and income in the region while also taking a toll on its roads.

Authorities in the Midland and Odessa area plan to spend about $1.3 million a year in state funding for new projects besides regular maintenance, said James Beauchamp, president of Motran Alliance. The region needs as much as $500 million, both Beauchamp and Redford said.

Improvements that would help include completing highway loops around the two cities and adding signals and overpasses at more intersections such as Yukon Road and Loop 338, Beauchamp said.

Yukon Road crosses two lanes of state highway in each direction close to Permian High School’s Ratliff Stadium, where the movie “Friday Night Lights” was filmed. A curve in the highway makes it almost a blind intersection that “absolutely” needs an overpass to separate traffic, Redford said.

Pando’s friend, Esteban Rojo, 45, a business manager at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church, died six days after the driver of a Jeep traveling southbound on Loop 338 disregarded a stop sign and crashed into the minivan that Rojo was driving with his wife and daughter, according to a Texas Public Safety Department report.

Pando’s mother, Velma Pando, 54, a Spanish teacher, was traveling south on Loop 338 and was struck by another vehicle after she failed to yield the right of way while turning, a crash report said.

Other stretches of road in the region also have seen high accident counts. A two-mile (3.2 kilometers) segment of West University Boulevard near Farm to Market Road 1936 in the western part of Ector County has had among the most intersection-related crashes in Texas since the end of 2009, state data show. Eight fatalities occurred there, including a 2012 crash that killed four teenagers; the driver of their car had been drinking and turned into the path of another vehicle, a crash report said.

Even when driver error is involved, Motran’s Beauchamp said, the risk of accidents can be reduced by adding overpasses and expanding routes parallel to West University to divert traffic.

“In our case, whatever we can do, even if it’s just a little bit more, it’s going to be better,” he said. “It’s going to mean that maybe we won’t kill as many people next year as we saw get killed out on our roads and highways last year.”

The state transportation department is making improvements, spokesman Gene Powell said. That includes spending $362,000 to add traffic lights at Yukon Road and Loop 338, widening sections of highway, adding rumble strips and installing cables in the median on Interstate 20, he said.

“We’re making our dollars stretch as far as we can and doing as much as we can,” Powell said.

A constitutional amendment on the November ballot in Texas would allow an estimated $1.7 billion portion of annual oil-and- gas tax revenue to be allocated for highway work instead of going to a state rainy day fund.

Even if the ballot measure passes, the state would be about $4 billion a year short of what’s needed just to keep the system performing at current levels, said Ellis, the Texas A&M researcher who testified before a state legislative committee in May.

An updated 2011 study from the Texas Transportation Commission, a government entity that oversees the planning, construction and operation of the state highway system, examined transportation spending and needs through 2035. It gave the state an “F” for its current funding levels. An additional $10.8 billion a year would be needed to boost the ranking to a “B” level.

The report concluded that the state needs increased revenue for infrastructure. Those sources could include a higher gas tax and registration fees, which politicians have previously rejected. Texans pay no income tax and less in transportation fees than residents of 43 other states, the report said.

It’s also more difficult to attract needed funding outside of Dallas and other more populated parts of the state, said Drew Crutcher, co-founder of a civil engineering firm in Odessa who participated in the study.

Texas needs to invest more in its highways to avoid higher costs in the future, and it’s unlikely that crashes in Odessa will recede anytime soon without it, Crutcher said.

“Sometimes, as a nation and as a state, we don’t do things except by crisis,” he said.

Rose Vasquez, 52, of Odessa is dealing with the fallout of that crisis. She and her husband are raising four grandchildren after their daughter, Kimberly, died in a 2012 crash on Loop 338 — three months after the children’s father perished in a separate wreck near Interstate 20.

Vasquez keeps a shrine of sorts on a table in the kitchen of her one-story Odessa house, with pictures of Kimberly, two crosses and a rosary arranged in the shape of a heart. She thinks about her daughter whenever she gets on a highway.

“Every day, when I go on, I do the sign of the cross and hoping that I’ll come back, because you never know,” Vasquez said.

Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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