Key to I-55/Hwy. 6 will be synchronized traffic signal lights 8/23/2013

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 23, 2013

Key to I-55/Hwy. 6 will be synchronized traffic signal lights

By John Howell Sr.

“What’s going on with the construction at I-55 and Highway 6?” I am asked.

It’s a fair question. We’ve been dodging roadway obstacles for months. For most of us, there is no rhyme nor reason to what we can see.

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District Engineer Mitch Turner helped to bring the project into perspective during a phone call Wednesday. Our conversation reminded me of how long that cloverleaf intersection has been in service. I recall a very cold December day in 1963 when the South Panola High School Band joined ribbon-cutting and speechmaking festivities on what is now the northbound side just south of the Highway 6 intersection.

The ceremony marked the opening of another segment as I-55 construction progressed south from Memphis and north from Jackson. It would be another 10 years before we could make the entire trip from Batesville to Jackson without having to leave the interstate at Vaiden and travel on old Highway 51 to Canton before returning to the new four-lane interstate to complete our journey.

Our horns blew cold that day. I don’t recall a word of any speech, but I am sure they were short. I am also sure that someone talked about great changes that would be coming our way with our new link to the interstate system then being completed across the nation.  I am just as sure that we had little idea just how significant the changes would prove to be. Those changes to transportation during the first quarter century of my life were as revolutionary as the changes of the last decade in communications.

That said, the old cloverleaf model that was designed for 1960s traffic is now badly outdated. Also, as we who drive it can attest, downright dangerous.

That’s what Mississippi Department of Transportation is trying to do, Turner said. Take the intersection design that has been rendered obsolete and unsafe by the volume of traffic today and the size of vehicles and modify it to make it as safe as possible with the money that’s available during these times of thin-stretched budgets.

Cloverleaf creates hazards

Perhaps the most noticeable change will be the elimination of cloverleafs (leaves?) in the northeast and southwest quadrants of the intersection. That, Turner said, will eliminate vehicles attempting to exit the interstate from jockeying for position in the same lane as those trying to enter the interstate.

Think about it. You’ve been headed east on Highway 6, bound for Memphis, and as you approach the entrance to the cloverleaf you find yourself trying to get over into the right lane while the car coming off the interstate is trying to get into the lane you’re in, and you’re side by side. What’s the protocol? It’s confusing and the result is too often “sideswipe collisions,” Turner said.

Once construction is complete you will still, as you drive east on Highway 6 to the interstate en route to Memphis, use the same cloverleaf. The difference will be there will be no traffic exiting the interstate via the other cloverleaf, because it will have been removed. And once you circle around the cloverleaf you will have a long ramp to build up your speed to match the other northbound traffic before you merge.

Extra lanes on Highway 6
So what about southbound interstate motorists who want to exit and go east or west on Highway 6? If they want to go west, they will exit onto the ramp as they have always done except that they will find a new dedicated right lane that will allow them direct access onto Lakewood Drive if they choose.

Southbound interstate motorists who want to exit and go east on Highway 6 will leave the interstate on the same southbound exit ramp but will enter a lane leading directly to Highway 6 where they will find a traffic signal controlling access.
With me so far?

If not, that’s understandable because my explanation is far more complicated to read that the actual remodeled roadway will be to drive.

“The ultimate goal is safety,” Turner said.

I believe him. I once told his boss, Northern District Highway Commissioner Mike Tagert, that when I’m driving north and approach the cloverleaf at the Batesville exit, I wonder how the pilot of a Navy jet approaching a carrier deck for a landing feels.

Once the intersection is rebuilt, I will use the same exit that those heading east to Oxford now use, but as the ramp nears Highway 6 I will enter a short roadway leading to Highway 6 where a traffic signal — just like the one on the west side — will control access.

Traffic lights’timing crucial

The key, Turner emphasized, will synchronizing all the traffic signals — Keating Road, Power Drive, the two new signals on either side of of I-55 and the signal at House-Carlson Drive — to maximize flow and minimize congestion.

What about ball games?
What about times of peak congestion like when the University of Memphis has a football game at Ole Miss? Turner has heard that question more than once.
“Those occasions will still require blue lights and enforcement,” he said.
But for general, day-to-day use, traffic should flow more smoothly and motorists should be safer, Turner said.