Motorists beware: a no man’s land at exit 37 on Interstate 40 may not be plowed and salted in bad weather with the same regularity as the rest of the highway.
The stretch in question lies near the Haywood-Buncombe county line, where a few hundred yards of the Interstate are occasionally overlooked. Plows and salt trucks coming from opposite directions — one crew from Haywood and another from Buncombe — use exit 37 as a natural turn-around point before heading back the other way.
“Essentially the county line is within a few hundred feet,” said Ed Green, the Department of Transportation maintenance engineer for Division 13, a seven-county area that includes Buncombe.
But there is a short stretch of Interstate between the exit ramp and the on ramp — including a bridge over the road below — that gets missed.
“Who does the bridge?” Green said in response. “I am not sure about who does that. At some point, some of them overlap, but they may not do it every time depending on how bad conditions are.”
One crew or the other has to overshoot exit 37 to avoid leaving a gap. Since the bridge has no shoulders, going past the exit in order to hit the bridge and then backing up isn’t an option.
“That’s too dangerous,” said Ben Williams, DOT maintenance supervisor in Haywood County. “The only way to do it is run past it.”
But when Haywood’s trucks overshoot exit 37, they have to continue for several miles to the truck weigh station before they can turn around. If Buncombe’s trucks overshoot exit 37, they can’t turn around until exit 33.
And that’s exactly what they do — most of the time that is, according to Chad Bandy, DOT maintenance supervisor in Buncombe County.
“A lot of times what we’ll do is go into Haywood County some, and they come into Buncombe County some,” said Bandy.
But occasionally, it gets skipped.
The territory around exit 37 lies on Buncombe’s side of the county line and is technically Buncombe’s responsibility — not Haywood’s. Plow and salt truck drivers coming from Buncombe decide whether to turn around at exit 37 or keep going to exit 33 “as conditions warrant,” Bandy said.
One Tuesday morning in early February there were two wrecks due to ice on the exit 37 bridge — one on each side of the Interstate, according to accident reports by the N.C. Highway Patrol.
That morning, Buncombe crews plowing and salting the road passed over the bridge only every other trip, Bandy said. The other trips, they turned around at exit 37 and didn’t proceed over the bridge all the way to the county line.
Mary Clayton, who commutes daily to Haywood Regional Medical Center from Buncombe County, said ice on the bridge threw her for a loop that morning.
“I didn’t even realize the weather was bad or the roads were bad. Then I hit the bridge and as soon as I hit the ice, well, I lost it,” Clayton said.
In all fairness, there were other weather-related wrecks on I-40 near exit 37 that morning as well, but not on the section that lies in no man’s land.
“There was one, two, three, four, five, six wrecks near the 37,” said Jennifer Hodge, an office assistant for the North Carolina Highway Patrol in Buncombe County.
Four of those six wrecks were due to icy roads, according to the accident reports. Two were on the bridge, which lies inside the no man’s land, while two were just east of it — indicating that the road was icy in other areas too, and that less-than-diligent plowing of the bridge isn’t necessarily to blame.
I-40 is a priority for Buncombe plow and salt trucks. Two drivers are assigned to the Interstate and make continual passes the duration of a snowstorm.
But there’s no log that shows how often Buncombe’s trucks turn around at exit 37, skipping the bridge in the process, versus continuing on to exit 33.
“We don’t keep a record of every trip the truck makes,” Bandy said.
Highway Patrol lodges concerns
Inconsistent plowing at exit 37 hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“Between Haywood and Buncombe is kind of a no-man’s land,” N.C. Highway Patrol Sergeant Henley said. “Buncombe handles one side and Haywood handles the other.”
Motorists who commute regularly have noticed in the past that the stretch between the exit ramp and on ramp can be snowier than the rest of the interstate.
It was such a problem last winter that the Highway Patrol held a meeting with Buncombe County DOT maintenance workers this fall to discuss it before another winter hit.
“It was addressed with them and they assured us it would be taken care of,” Henley said.
Bandy said he remembered the meeting, but not that particular topic.
“I mean, yeah, we talked about, you know, a lot of things with snow and ice,” Bandy said.
But he didn’t remember concerns about exit 37 specifically.
“Not that I recall, but there may have,” Bandy said. “I don’t remember that particular one, but it may have come up.”
Henley recalls it clearly, however. He said the Buncombe DOT workers assured troopers that they had a protocol for dealing with exit 37.
However, that protocol remains difficult to ferret out.
Green, who initially said “I am not sure who is doing what out there” pledged to look into it. A few days later, after talking to Bandy, he reported back.
“I talked to our folks and found out they are treating it. They go all the way to 33. Not every time but most of the time,” Green said. “They assured me it was being taken care of.”
When asked whether the Buncombe and Haywood maintenance units call each other ahead of time to coordinate who will do the bridge, the answer was “no.”
“We don’t,” Bandy said. But, “during the event as conditions warrant, we do talk to each other,” he added.
Ben Williams, the maintenance supervisor in Haywood County, confirmed that the two units don’t call each other to coordinate ahead of time.
“Sometimes it depends on who gets there first. If it is there and it needs pushing we’ll do it,” Williams said. “We are very fluid.”
Bandy and Green said it makes more sense to let the plow drivers make that decision on the ground, since it depends on timing of who arrives there first and how bad the road is.
“They are not really going to know until they get there,” said Green.
However, that’s not the impression Henley was given at the meeting last fall when troopers asked about a protocol for making sure the stretch wasn’t forgotten.
“They kind of assured us they had one,” Henley said.
Henley said it would be preferable for crews to decide prior to a storm who would do it.
Bandy and Williams, the maintenance supervisors in Buncombe and Haywood respectively, both referred to each other as friends, and even talked to each other in between interviews for this article. As friends, it may be one reason they don’t feel an official protocol is necessary.
“Ben and his counterpart in Buncombe are good friends, and I am sure they have it worked out,” said Mark Gibbs, the maintenance engineer for DOT’s Division 14, a 10-county area that includes Haywood County.
It could also explain why Williams would send Haywood County trucks into Buncombe County simply to be a good neighbor, despite struggling with not enough money for snow removal in his own county.
Gibbs said he has never asked Williams how the stretch at exit 37 is handled. He travels the section of I-40 every morning on his commute to Sylva. This is the first winter he has been making the commute, but has never noticed a problem.
“Every time I have been through there, there has been very little transition between the two lines,” Williams said. “The coordination of both counties, even though it is across Division lines, seems to work fairly well.”