ONCE-DEFENSELESS TRUCKERS GRATEFUL AS TENNESSEE "TAMES' KILLER MOUNTAIN

ONCE-DEFENSELESS TRUCKERS GRATEFUL AS TENNESSEE "TAMES' KILLER MOUNTAIN

After spending 10 years and tens of millions of dollars on new safety measures, the state of Tennessee has finally declared victory over a dangerous mountain on a key north-south interstate highway.

"We consider the Monteagle problems solved," said Jimmy Evans, commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Transportation.Monteagle Mountain is some 25 miles northwest of Chattanooga on Interstate 24, a major link in the nation's road system between the industrial Midwest and the Southeast consumer centers and ocean port areas.

Trucking company officials, as well as the Tennessee Highway Patrol, agreed that the steep mountain road is tamed after years in which its four miles of highway led to death for some and harrowing rides for many others.

"With a mountain that size, you always will have some problems," said Leonard Foster, a Nashville-based manager for Yellow Freight System Inc., ''but because of what they have done those problems are almost nil."

The newest safety facility, opened in January, is a truck island at the top of the mountain where truckers can adjust their brakes for the downhill trek on the treacherous eastbound side heading into Chattanooga.

Other recent improvements include a strictly enforced 45-mph speed limit and milder grading after extensive cutting of the mountainside.

Previous efforts sometimes failed, including a series of runaway truck ramps off the right-hand side next to the drop-off for eastbound lanes. But if a truck missed the ramp or skimmed over it in the rain, the next stop was the steep mountainside or the valley below.

Ron Gant, Tennessee Trucking Association president, said he remembered trucks hurtling off the mountain when the speed limit was 55 and runaway ramps were on the right side of the road.

The state said it spent $52.5 million in the past 10 years on Monteagle, $40 million of that in the past four years alone.

It shifted to new ramps in 1988, dug now into the left side of the road and burrowed into the mountain itself next to what are normally the fast lanes for cars.

It recently added mountaintop warning signs to stay in a special left-hand lane closest to the runaway ramps.

Truckers and Highway Patrol officials say the left-lane side is the only place the ramps can work.

"We like the ramps," Mr. Foster said, "but have never had to use any of them."

Tim McKinney, an official for Carolina Freight Carriers in Cherryville, N.C., said the ramp setup is a little odd, but agreed that is the only place for them.

"Our biggest problem still is the weather," he said, "especially with snow in the wintertime. However, these improvements have helped tremendously.

"We don't depend very much on the brake ramp because we have a triangle of maintenance centers in Cincinnati, Atlanta and Cherryville where everything is inspected before going onto the mountain," He added.

Truckers and state officials recall several deaths due to mountain accidents.

Gwen Hopkins, communications director for the state Department of Transportation, said there were 54 total accidents in eastbound lanes in 1983, but only three accidents last year.

She noted there had been three deaths on Monteagle since the new ramps opened, all in a car-truck collision at the bottom in 1989.

She did not provide requested information on past fatalities.

Capt. Jimmy Whitlock of the Highway Patrol said "the mountain is in pretty good shape."