City records: TxDOT waited over an hour after initial complaints to shut down Lufkin loop

LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) - It took over an hour after an initial complaint of tar and gravel being stuck on drivers' tires before highway officials made the call to shut down Loop 287 in Lufkin on Aug. 31.

TxDOT was forced to close the east side of Loop 287 on Aug. 31 after melted tar began sticking to drivers' tires. According to TxDOT spokeswoman Rhonda Oaks, rain from Tropical Storm Harvey kept the sealing of the road from drying properly. On that Thursday, the seal melted when the sun came up and began sticking to the tires.

TxDOT shut down the road, but not before hundreds of drivers had found their vehicles nearly undriveable. About 600 people have filed damage claims with TxDOT.

Lufkin police records show dispatch received their first complaint at 8:57 a.m., when a woman at Moore's Retread & Tire on the 2600 block of N. Medford Drive said drivers were pulling into the parking lot and their tires were caked with tar.

At 9:23 a.m., TxDOT spokeswoman issued a press release, asking that drivers avoid the east loop. "MOTORISTS ARE STRONGLY ADVISED TO AVOID THE AREA."

Two officers had been working traffic control that day and were being paid by Clark Construction and one of them called dispatch at 9:41 a.m.

Officer to patrol supervisor: "I don't think we're going to be able to ride these patrol cars on the roadway.

Patrol Supervisor: "Have you talked to anybody from TxDOT?"

Officer: "Yeah, they're trying to get the loop shut down. They're already out here sweeping and stuff right now. If we spend another five minutes on this road, these patrol cars are going to need to be towed.  We're holding tight where we are right now, but I don't think we need to have our patrol cars out on the loop. There's a TxDOT guy here right now and he's just driving his truck on it."

Lufkin police released the information on the calls and audio files of the calls to KTRE after KTRE requested records of the calls.

At 10:08 a.m., Lufkin police spokeswoman Jessica Pebsworth released the following email:

"I know TxDOT has already sent something this morning, but can you guys please help us get the message out ... DO NOT DRIVE ON THE EAST LOOP!!!! The west loop is open and has no issues. Choose an alternate route.

There is tar and gravel that is sticking to vehicle tires - even our own patrol units.

We ask that citizens not call our emergency and non-emergency lines to complain because they are tying up our lines and slowing down the process of getting help to people who truly need it.

TxDOT is directing citizens with damaged vehicles to contact Clark Construction at 210-661-6785 to start the claim process.  

Our administration is meeting with TxDOT officials shortly to determine more effective a long-term plan."

Pebsworth said Lufkin Police Chief Gerald Williamson, Assistant Chief David Thomas and Lt. David Young went to the TxDOT office to meet with employees there about the issue.

"We went over there and there were two people at the TxDOT office," Thomas said in an email statement. "They said that they had all their people and resources in Beaumont for the floods and they requested the City of Lufkin to use some of our cones and barricades because TxDOT was waiting for equipment from Crockett. That's when we had to call in manpower to shut down the loop with patrol cars instead of using cones and barricades. TxDOT had no cones or barricades in Lufkin which was justified because those resources were being used in Beaumont."

At 10:36 a.m., a patrol supervisor sent out an alert that police were implementing a plan to shut down the east loop.

At 11:35 a.m., Pebsworth sent out an email stating that the east loop had been shut down.

"As soon as we became fully aware of how serious a situation it was, then we had to start the process of shutting down a nine-mile section of the loop," Williamson said. "You can't just do that. It's a huge undertaking that takes a lot of resources. We started on that immediately. We've never encountered this type of situation before. We had to call in officers from home to shut down the loop because it was going to be long term and we still had calls for service to answer."

"A planned closure of a highway is TxDOT's call," Thomas said. "For example, when we do July 4th, we have to get written permission to shut down the loop, which is a state highway. When we have a parade and do anything on a business route that belongs to TxDOT, we have to get permission from them," Thomas said. "In an emergency situation like a bad wreck that makes a road impassable or requires a helicopter landing zone be established, we are allowed to shut down whatever streets or highways we need to. We were going to shut down the loop no matter what, but we had to have manpower to be able to do that. We had the city engineer and street department director at the meeting with TxDOT and they were both working on a plan for how we could use city equipment and people to shut down the loop until TxDOT could come in and take over with the resources out of Crockett they were waiting on."

Pebsworth said the department called out 17 officers and one dispatcher to manage the call and the extra labor cost the city $10,166.46. They do not know if they will be reimbursed by Clark Construction.

KTRE has obtained hundreds of pages of correspondence regarding the incident through the Public Information Act. TxDOT complied with the request without appeal.

In one email, a TxDOT official speculated Clark Construction's insurance company would deny all claims, citing an Act of God as the reason.

Officials with Clark Construction have not answered an email requesting comment.

An email from one TxDOT official on Aug. 29 stated they would not be closing the road.

"Due to the impacts of Hurricane Harvey on this area of the state the TxDOT Nacogdoches Area Office will not be allowing lane closures on our projects, except in emergency situations, until September 5, 2017. We appreciate your cooperation with us while we work through this situation."

Editor's note: The preceding story is one in a series regarding the Lufkin loop incident on Aug. 31. Related stories can be found on this page.