TEXAS VIEW: Fatal I-35W crash: Were roads improperly anti-iced?

THE POINT: Pileup has eerie similarities to deadly prison bus accident 7 years ago.

Who could forget the videos of the horrific chain-reaction accident on ice-covered Interstate 35W in February 2021?

Four men and two women were killed and at least 65 injured when more than 130 cars, trucks and semis crashed into each other, unable to control their vehicles on the slick, two-lane North Tarrant Express in Fort Worth. The resulting pileup of mangled metal spanned more than three football fields.

But could it have all been prevented?

Did the Texas Department of Transportation fail to follow anti-icing highway safety recommendations previously issued by federal investigators stemming from a deadly 2015 prison bus crash in West Texas?

We’re concerned that may be the case. Further, our look into the investigation of this heartbreaking event justifies further scrutiny of the complicated partnership between TxDOT and foreign companies to build, maintain and receive fees from toll-generating express lanes.

We should note up front that TxDOT did not answer our questions about the case. And a spokesman for NTE Mobility Partners Segments 3, a public-private consortium headed by the giant Spanish firm Cintra, denied any wrongdoing in connection with the accident.

But the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating whether the concerns we raise here are justified.

Within just three months of launching its probe, the NTSB released a preliminary report on its factual findings, and said it was focusing on “road treatment strategies used to address the freezing conditions.”

The report noted that two days before the 6 a.m., Feb. 11, 2021, accident, NTE Mobility pre-treated the express lanes with a brine solution. At about 2 a.m. a weather station three miles away reported freezing rain, and an ice-related crash was reported about five miles away just an hour later. NTE Mobility displayed a digital message on the southbound lanes of the North Tarrant Express advising caution because “icy conditions exist,” the NTSB said. There was no further treatment of the roads.

Among the six people who were killed, two were struck after they exited their cars. Witnesses reported hearing screams and cries for help from drivers and passengers pinned in their vehicles. First responders struggled for hours to rescue victims, some of them injuring themselves on the icy pavement doing so.

The NTSB said it could not answer our questions about its inquiry. But its chief of highway investigations told us, through a spokesperson, that “you might be interested” in the agency’s investigation of one of the worst traffic accidents in Texas history.

In January 2015, a prison bus traveling along an icy Interstate 20 outside Odessa flew off an embankment and into a Union Pacific freight train below traveling underneath the overpass. Ten people died, including 8 handcuffed inmates and two correctional officers. Five others were injured.

The NTSB’s final report in May 2016 included a safety recommendation to TxDOT that the agency “revise your policies” to be in line with National Cooperative Highway Research Program guidelines “to include spot treatment of interstate highway bridge decks, use of abrasives, and proper application rates for liquid anti-icing chemicals to account for long cycle times.”

The NTSB said at the time it was “vitally interested in these recommendations because they are designed to prevent accidents and save lives.”

TxDOT did not respond to our questions. But it eventually reported to the NTSB in April 2020 that it had included the guidelines in its training program, agency records show. The NTSB found that response acceptable and officially closed its investigation.

NTE Mobility‘s corporate affairs director Robert Hinkle said, “We review and revise our processes for treating our roadways on an ongoing basis.” Officials there “continually provide updated training for our technicians,” and “have always taken the safety of our roadways very seriously.” It remains unclear if NTE Mobility, which is responsible for maintaining the North Tarrant Express, was aware of the NTSB’s previous recommendations to TxDOT.

Asked about the relationship between the partners who make up the consortium, Hinkle directed us to the TxDOT website. It says that it is led by Austin-based Cintra US, the American arm of Cintra, which is a subsidiary of Madrid-based Ferrovial. That global “powerhouse” owns and manages major infrastructure assets, including London’s Heathrow Airport, the website says.

That concerns Beaumont lawyer J. Keith Hyde, who is representing the family of Aaron Watson, one of those killed in the I-35 crash, in a lawsuit against TxDOT, NTE Mobility and numerous other defendants.

Hyde told us he’s still waiting to take depositions, but his early investigation has raised questions about the profits earned by the consortium from the toll roads. He’s concerned the consortium is more interested in collecting money generated by the roads than properly maintaining them.

Hyde said his suit is focused “on the total lack of treatment of the road” in advance of the forecast icy weather. The toll lanes, restricted on both sides by concrete barriers, should have been shut down, particularly after the earlier accident was reported, he said.

The Watson family’s lawsuit is one of ten already filed across the state, and many more are expected. So far the cases have been consolidated in a multidistrict litigation pre-trial court in Tarrant County to handle proceedings common to the cases. This means a full discovery of the facts surrounding this terrible event is likely years away.

In the meantime, we eagerly anticipate the NTSB’s final report. Will it show that the roads traveled by those unsuspecting, early morning commuters were improperly anti-iced? Should they have been re-treated or shut down altogether? That’s what NTE Mobility this past winter did when ice once again hit the area.

These are the questions that trouble us, and should trouble all road travelers until we have the answers.

Dallas Morning News