published Sunday, March 16th, 2014

Accidents spike at Ooltewah-Ringgold-Standifer Gap intersection, but no solution until next year

Motorists on Standifer Gap Road stop for cross traffic on Ooltewah-Ringgold Road early Tuesday morning. A growing number of crashes at the intersection has officials looking for a solution, probably a roundabout.
Motorists on Standifer Gap Road stop for cross traffic on Ooltewah-Ringgold Road early Tuesday morning. A growing number of crashes at the intersection has officials looking for a solution, probably a roundabout.
Photo by Dan Henry.

CRASH COUNT

The number of motor vehicle crashes at the intersection of Ooltewah-Ringgold and Standifer Gap roads has risen since 2008:

* 2008 -- 1

* 2009 -- 4

* 2010 -- 10

* 2011 -- 7

* 2012 -- 8

* 2013 -- 7

* 2014 (year to date) -- 3

Source: Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security

One Hamilton County intersection seems to pull pickup trucks and cars together, like a glass-splitting, metal-twisting magnet.

There are too many crashes here, county officials say.

In fact, so many people have smashed so many vehicles at the intersection of Ooltewah-Ringgold and Standifer Gap roads that government officials want to build a roundabout there. They say this will curb collisions and loosen traffic jams.

But the price tag is expensive, the process lengthy. Hamilton County government has tried to solve the intersection's problem since 2011. And, after spending about $180,000, the county won't have the solution until next year.

Evidence of the intersection's dangers can be found in the debris left behind. Chunks of car frames and broken glass litter the area.

The problem, residents and county officials say, started in August 2008, when East Hamilton Middle High School opened about a mile south of the intersection.

In 2007-08, there was one crash at Ooltewah-Ringgold and Standifer Gap roads, according to the Tennessee Highway Patrol. During the next four years, 29 crashes occurred. Preliminary 2013 figures show at least another seven collisions, and three more crashes have happened here this year.

But there are plenty of intersections near schools in Hamilton County. Why is this one especially dangerous?

Part of the issue is the way the roads are aligned. This doesn't look like a standard intersection. Motorists approaching from the west on Standifer Gap Road and crossing to the other side have to swerve right. The road is skewed. Trying to travel through the intersection in a straight line will put drivers on the grass when they reach the other side.

Also, this isn't a four-way stop. Stop signs stand at the edge of Standifer Gap Road, on both sides. But those driving down Ooltewah-Ringgold Road don't have to stop. This apparently has led some drivers to creep into oncoming traffic.

Consider the case of Jerry Daniels. In February 2011, he was driving north on Ooltewah-Ringgold Road, heading home from his farm. As he crossed the intersection, the driver of a Toyota minivan cruised past a stop sign and buried his car into Daniels' Ford F-150, right next to the driver's side door.

It was 9 p.m. Daniels didn't see the van until headlights glowed on the front end of the truck. Did he see it before or after the collision? He isn't sure.

"It was just an instant flash," he said.

The crash fractured his left leg, bruised his ribs. But the mental dent was greater than the physical one. Thirty-five years ago, he said, his brother died in a similar car crash.

Daniels still gets nervous while driving. And even though he sells motorcycle accessories in Ooltewah, Daniels barely rides his own bike.

"You pay attention more to these things when you've had it happen to you, your family," he said.

Months after his crash, Daniels attended a public meeting about changing that intersection. He doesn't understand why change takes so long.

In fact, the process is quite complex, said John Agan, Hamilton County's director of engineering. The issues start with the very nature of the two roads in question.

Standifer Gap Road belongs to the county. But Ooltewah-Ringgold Road belongs to the state. So, if Hamilton County wants to change that intersection, it has to get approval from the state government.

This has a couple of implications. On one hand, the county will get outside funding for the project. In all, according to the latest projections, building a roundabout will cost about $900,000 -- but the federal government will cover 80 percent of the expense.

On the other hand, the county has to abide by federal regulations for changing the intersection. While adding stop signs on Ooltewah-Ringgold Road would be cheaper ("a few hundred dollars," according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation), federal regulations say adding stop signs is not allowed.

This is because of the amount of traffic on that road. About 8,500 cars drive on Ooltewah-Ringgold Road near that intersection every day, according to TDOT. That level of traffic means there are only two options: A four-way traffic light or a roundabout.

But, because Standifer Gap Road doesn't cross the intersection in a straight line, a traffic light would not work, Agan said. A roundabout makes more sense.

To get from that decision to the implementation requires several steps. First the county had to enter a contract with the state and hold a public meeting. Then environmental issues, like how the construction would affect air quality, local animals and any historic structure nearby, had to be studied. Now the land for the roundabout has to be bought.

In this case, there are four houses surrounding the intersection. The government will have to buy chunks of each homeowner's land to build the roundabout.

Chuck Corey, who lives on the southwest corner of the intersection, said he has to sell the government 5,300 square feet of his property.

"Either they are very generous, which I have a hard time believing, or they really want to build this thing," he said. "They don't want anything to get in the way."

Corey said he couldn't remember exactly how much the county has agreed to pay him, but according to TDOT the total price for the land on the four properties is about $130,000. This is included in the estimate for the total cost of project.

The county has not paid for these properties yet. But once the purchases are made, the county will start accepting bids for construction. And after the bidding comes the building. And, about six months after the building comes the roundabout's opening.

And after the opening, drivers hope, does not come the crashing.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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