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Bikers avoiding deadly U.S. 281 construction zone
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Friends of a Russell man who died last Saturday on U.S. 281 won’t use that highway when they travel to his funeral today.
In fact, word is spreading among bikers to avoid the stretch of highway between Great Bend and Hoisington until construction is finished, said Luie Philbern, president of THE MEN motorcycle club. The accident that claimed the life of Julian H. Gonzales, 46, was the worst of several injury accidents since the asphalt overlay project began.
“We’re going to the funeral in Russell,” Philbern said. “We’re taking Boyd Road (instead of U.S. 281) specifically at the request of his widow.”
Philbern and Robert Bruce Jr. – who is recovering at home after his own spill on the highway Saturday – blame the uneven pavement and lack of markings on the lanes or shoulders. Kansas Department of Transportation has contracted with Venture Corporation to mill the surface and add a 1.5-inch asphalt overlay.
Gonzales’ accident happened at 9:48 p.m. Saturday, three minutes after Bruce dropped a tire off the shoulder of U.S. 281, two miles south of Hoisington. Both Bruce and his 2001 Kawasaki ended up in the ditch. Gonzales came back to help him and dropped his own motorcycle after hitting the ridge that separates the uneven lanes, Bruce said. The pickup hit Gonzales as he was attempting to upright his motorcycle.
Since then, two other motorcyclists have had serious spills in the construction zone; both ended up at Wichita hospitals and were listed in fair condition Wednesday evening.
Michael W. Cavender, 61, Great Bend, laid down a motorcycle Monday afternoon at mile post 110, which is 1.8 miles from where Saturday’s accidents occurred. The Barton County Sheriff’s Office reported he lost control when crossing the ridge between lanes. He is at Wesley Medical Center.
Shortly before 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Mark H. Letourneau, 49, from Temecula, Calif., became the next casualty. He was headed north through the overlay work on a 2009 Harley-Davidson Road King. That accident happened about 3 miles north of Great Bend. The BCSO reported the motorcycle’s front tire went off the ridge at the shoulder and came back to the roadway; then the rear tire went off the road and Letourneau was thrown from the bike.
He is at Via Christi’s St. Francis Hospital.
Barton County Undersheriff Larry Holliday said the accidents prompted communication with KDOT and the Kansas Highway Patrol.
KDOT spokesman Martin Miller said more warning signs have been added since the series of injury accidents.
“It’s a standard work zone,” he said. It is  marked every half mile with signs that warn of uneven lanes.
However, this week lighted message boards were added at both ends of the work zone. The signs flash three messages: Work zone ahead – Caution uneven lanes – Next 8 miles.
Bruce said those signs went up Wednesday morning. But he doesn’t think they address the real problem. “That asphalt is all black and you can’t see a 2-inch drop-off when you’re going down the road,” he said. “That is a dangerous highway."