The truck speeds toward the bridge railing at over 60 mph. On impact, puffs of white can be seen as the tires explode, shards of glass and metal go flying and the back end of the truck rises off the ground, the wheels akimbo and still spinning.
In slow motion, it’s like a ballet, hundreds of pieces gliding through the air in graceful concert. In real time, it’s a violent, concussive impact.
But for drivers who use the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, it’s good news.
The crash in question, captured in video footage released this week by Causeway officials, was part of the first round of tests for a new rail prototype designed to keep vehicles from plunging into the water below, something that has been occurring all too frequently on the Causeway over the past several years.
And the steel rail shown in the clip — one of several potential designs — takes the hit without letting the truck go overboard.
The tests are being conducted at an air strip near College Station, Texas, by engineers from Texas A&M’s Traffic Institute at the behest of Causeway officials, who have become alarmed by the frequency of deadly “overboard” crashes on the 24-mile span.
Since 1994, there have been 14 overboard crashes and 11 fatalities on the Causeway. All but one of the overboards occurred on the southbound bridge. One culprit, officials agree, is the low concrete barrier, 25 inches high with a metal handrail on top of it, that was built to standards current in 1956. The northbound bridge has concrete barriers that are six inches higher.
Nowadays, with more cars on the bridge, and a much higher percentage of those being large vehicles with a high center of gravity, the barrier’s inadequacies have been brought into sharp relief. In the last two years, there have been six overboards, resulting in four deaths. Drivers — often in trucks and SUVs — have sometimes lost control on the bridge and vaulted over the railing 25 feet into the lake below.
One driver — among the fortunate few who survive an overboard Causeway crash — described hitting the concrete barrier in his pickup truck as akin to a “Dukes of Hazzard ramp.”
Causeway leaders asked engineers at Texas A&M’s Traffic Institute to study the problem. The engineers designed three rails, which they pressure-tested on the Causeway’s unused 9-mile turnaround earlier this year. But a final report couldn’t be produced without actually running some trucks into the rails and seeing how they responded.
Crash testing began last week when engineers crashed a large box truck into the first prototype, a single steel rail that would increase the height of the barrier by 12 inches. The test was meticulously planned: workers constructed an exact replica of the Causeway’s 25-inch concrete barrier and put the rail prototype on top of it.
The testing continued Monday and Tuesday with the pickup truck and a small passenger car. None of the three went over the railing, meaning in a similar crash, each of them would have stayed on the bridge.
The railing “performed better than expected,” said Carlton Dufrechou, general manager of the Greater New Orleans Expressway Commission, the body that runs the Causeway and the Huey P. Long Bridge. “It looks doggone good.”
Further tests will be conducted this week and early next, this time with a double rail that would increase the height of the railing to 46 inches. If, as expected, that rail holds the three vehicles — the same as in the first test — then officials will have a decision to make.
Dufrechou hopes that the Aggie engineers will have a final report by the middle of January, at which point it will be handed off to GEC, the Causeway’s consulting engineers, who will begin to study how to get the rails onto the bridge.
The biggest question, of course, is funding. Dufrechou couldn’t estimate how much the railings would cost, but said his staff was exploring every option, including state and federal grant funds.
“We have at least 48 miles of bridge, and if we do both, it’s 96 miles of railing,” he said. “We want to make it as affordable and as quick as possible.”
The issue has become urgent enough that bridge managers have even floated the idea of raising the tolls, which sit at $2 for a round trip with a toll tag: the same price it was when the Causeway opened nearly 60 years ago. For cash customers, it has gone up just once, from $2 to $3 in the mid-1990s.
At a summer public meeting in Mandeville, commissioners discussed the idea and took public comment on a possible toll increase. The reaction was mixed, with some saying the increase was long overdue and others saying the problems could be solved by lowering speed limits or more strictly enforcing laws against distracted driving.
Others suggested different tolls for different types of vehicles.
Right now, the Causeway gets revenue from two major sources: tolls and a state highway fund. The latter provides about $4.5 million to help pay the bridge’s approximately $46 million in debt. Tolls produce about $16 million per year, which is used to fund the bridge’s operating expenses.
For Dufrechou, the problem is simple: the Causeway is a 20th-century bridge that is dealing with 21st-century problems.
“When the northbound span opened in 1969, we had two million cars making the trip. Now it’s six times that,” Dufrechou said. Further, the vehicles have changed, so that one in every two is an SUV or a pickup truck, he added.
And while Dufrechou concedes that not every accident can be prevented, he said the ultimate goal is to prevent any loss of life and “get everybody back and forth safely.”
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.