Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

April 20, 2014

Group looks to help stranded I-81 motorists

By JOHN McVEY
AP Exchange

MARTINSBURG (AP) — Everyone thinks John G. “JG” Bartley has a great idea — a mobile comfort station that could be used during traffic jams on Interstate 81, during large structure fires and disasters — but wonders why someone hasn’t thought of it before.

“It’s a good idea and I’m happy to facilitate this meeting — we need to listen to his plan,” Eddie Gochenour, deputy director of Berkeley County’s emergency management office, said last Tuesday.

Bartley also garnered support from Jennifer Hudson of the Berkeley County Health Department and Gary Collis, executive director of the Berkeley County Emergency Ambulance Authority.

They all attended the first meeting of a committee that will try to make Bartley’s idea come to fruition.

“Everybody has this problem,” the former police officer and businessman said. “Responders have to use the bathroom, also. And people who are stranded on the highway in freezing temperatures or in the heat, in extreme weather conditions that could lead to a catastrophic event. It’s a health issue.”

The solution, according to Bartley, is a bathroom facility on a trailer that could be hauled along the shoulder of the road for stranded motorists and first responders to use when there has been an accident on I-81, blocking traffic for extended periods.

The trailer also could carry water and food, he said.

There have been several instances over the past few years, especially when the highway was under construction, when traffic has come to a standstill on I-81 after an accident blocks the lanes.

The latest was a freak snow squall that swept across I-81 in northern Berkeley County on March 26, causing multi-vehicle, chain-reaction accidents in both the northbound and southbound lanes, shutting them down for as much as eight hours.

Two people were killed in the accident and several were flown to local hospitals with serious injuries.

Bartley got the idea when he saw a portable comfort station on a trailer that was following a group of prison inmates as they cleaned up a highway in Maryland, he said.

Members of the newly formed committee had several questions.

“Who is going to fund it?” Collis asked.

Bartley suggested several possible funding sources, such as private sponsorships; federal, state and local grants; or a public-private partnership.

“Whichever is the best fit,” he said. “But this is not about making money.”

There also is the question of whether such a facility would be allowed on an interstate highway.

Collis wondered if there are state or federal regulations that would govern the mobile comfort station’s use and if legislation would have to be enacted to allow its use.

Hudson did not foresee any problems with local regulations, she said. The facility would be treated like a public restroom by the Health Department, which would entail inspections.

“Anytime there’s a major incident on the highways, it involves the state Division of Highways,” Gochenour said. “They already have a courtesy patrol on the interstate. We should cooperate with the DOH. We could get this accomplished.”

The group decided to research the issues more, consult with other agencies and to see if other areas are using mobile comfort stations. They plan to meet again in two weeks.

“It’s just common sense and we’ve got to get started,” Bartley said.

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John McVey writes for The Journal.