Icy Arkansas roads affect traffic in Southeast Missouri

Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Traffic is backed up as truckers and motorists sit on icy southbound Interstate 55 near Blytheville, Ark., on Tuesday. Southbound Interstate 55 was backed up from Interstate 40 to near the Missouri border and I-40 was snarled between Forrest City and West Memphis, especially westbound traffic due to slippery conditions. (AP Photo/The Blytheville Courier News, Aaron FitzPatrick

Drivers were stranded overnight behind jackknifed tractor-trailers and stalled passenger cars on icy roads in eastern Arkansas, and the slippery conditions made cleanup dangerous Tuesday.

Missouri travel officials also warned of potential road closures.

Southbound Interstate 55 was backed up from Interstate 40 to near the Missouri border, a distance of 70 miles, and I-40 was snarled in the 40-mile stretch between Forrest City, Ark., and West Memphis, Ark., especially westbound traffic.

The Missouri Department of Transportation sent an advisory Tuesday afternoon that southbound truckers on I-55 should exit before Sikeston, Mo., because parking lots are full further south in Hayti, Mo.

Later Tuesday, MoDOT urged travelers to avoid southbound I-55 or southbound Interstate 155 into Tennessee. At 10 p.m. Tuesday, MoDOT said all truck stops south of U.S. 60 were full.

"In combination with the winter weather, Arkansas also has a single lane work zone on southbound I-55 near Osceola," the MoDOT release said. "If an incident occurs, it will require the complete closure of southbound I-55 in Arkansas, which could lead to backups and closures in Missouri."

Conditions were expected to improve Wednesday, but Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department spokesman Randy Ort said it is no easy task to clear the roads when they're packed with ice.

"We'll get a jackknifed rig moved and traffic will move and then something else will happen," Ort said.

According to David Nilles, public information specialist with the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department, I-55 has been backed up for more than 12 hours, particularly in the southbound lane where traffic is all but stopped, while northbound traffic has freed up and is moving at a steady pace. While road crews are working to clear the highway, Nilles said there's little that can be done until the snow and ice start to melt.

"We've been at this since Sunday when it started -- treating bridges and the roads," Nilles said. "Once it gets above freezing, we should start seeing progress."

Although the Arkansas State Police reported working a number of accidents on I-55, including tractor-trailers that had jackknifed near the Missouri state line, Nilles said the biggest problem road crews are facing is the poor road conditions caused by the buildup of ice, sleet and snow since Sunday afternoon.

"We've got crews out there working, and they're doing what they can, but our equipment can't get where it needs to be because of the condition of the roads," he said.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe said state troopers and the National Guard were checking with motorists to ensure there were no health emergencies and Game and Fish Commission employees were ferrying fuel to motorists who had none. His office said construction zones along both highways contributed to the traffic tie-ups and referred questions to the highway department, which is an independent state agency.

With temperatures in the teens and single digits overnight, crews were limited in what they could accomplish, Ort said, noting that road salt is ineffective when temperatures drop below 22 degrees. There was plenty of ice left from a winter storm that pelted the region Sunday into Monday.

Traffic on I-55 heading into Arkansas from Memphis, Tenn., moved at a crawl Tuesday morning. Tractor-trailers and passenger vehicles were backed up into the city as they inched their way toward the Mississippi River bridge.

On Interstate 40 from Tennessee into Arkansas, where the speed limit is 65 mph, traffic edged along at 5 mph.

Sandra Lockhart Roberts said her car had moved little more than a mile in 45 minutes.

"It's a total inconvenience," she said. "It's so stressful. Stressful. I have to calm down. Patience is a virtue."

Trucker Daniel Rayford, 38, driving a bright yellow DHL semi to Arkansas, said it took him about nine hours to drive from Little Rock to Memphis on Monday. The trip usually takes two hours.

"It's crazy," Rayford said in West Memphis, about 130 miles east of Little Rock. "To get to Little Rock from here, from what I saw last night, I might get there sometime tonight and it's 11:15 a.m."

Ort said state police had to stop what modest movement there was on the highways so tow trucks could reach disabled vehicles, further clogging the highways.

"People get very frustrated when they don't see us working on the roadway," Ort said. "If they're not moving then we can't move. We understand their frustration."

Some motorists told The Blytheville Courier and Jonesboro television station KAIT that they had spent the night in their vehicles.

"We're doing everything we can," Ort said. "Sometimes that means waking up drivers when they can get moving again."

Dozens of tractor-trailers lined up on Interstate 55, and The Courier said hotels were full. Many truckers got off the highway and parked at a nearby Walmart or at Lowe's.

The Blytheville (Ark.) Courier News contributed to this story.

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