Just west of the Mt. Carmel treatment plant, Lake Shore Drive curves and plummets downhill toward Koehne Park, offering an unmatched sunset view of Lake Waco.
It’s known as one of the most scenic drives in town, and one of the deadliest.
The downhill curve has been the site of several fatal wrecks over the years, often following a pattern: Cars head downhill, slide into the guardrail and bounce into oncoming traffic.
“I’ve been in law enforcement 34 years, and it seems like the north side of that stretch has always had accidents for some reason,” police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton said. “The crashes there are typically violent, and most are head-on.”
The danger doesn’t end there. The road is built on an unstable slope of limestone and shale that has had numerous small failures over the years and could be in danger of a major collapse, experts say.
Now city officials have decided to spend $510,500 to put together a “dream team” to study Lake Shore Drive’s traffic and geology problems, which appear to be related.
Two engineering firms, the Waco-based Wallace Group and Fort Worth-based Freese and Nichols, will work with geologists to study the roadway between Mt. Carmel Drive and Bishop Drive. By this summer, they will have recommendations for short-term traffic safety improvements.
By fall, they will have longer-term recommendations for stabilizing the slope and possibly improving the view of the lake by thinning vegetation. The project includes boring two holes 100 feet down and installing gauges to track any movement of the rock and soil.
Over the last three decades, the city has commissioned at least two studies of the slope and has tried numerous fixes to the road. The city closed the road for several months in 2001 to rebuild the shoulder on the lake side, which was sloughing off.
In 2005, part of the slope above the road slid down, trees and all, and lodged against the guardrail, where it still remains.
City engineering director Octavio Garza said the problem deserves a more in-depth study.
“This attempt is different,” he said. “We’re bringing in some senior-level, nationally acclaimed scientists to find a solution — if there exists a solution.”
The problem with the road stems from its original design and from geological misfortune.
The road cuts across the side of the hill that was first dubbed “Mt. Carmel” in the 1930s by the Branch Davidians, then a peaceful Adventist sect, which built a commune there and created terraces along the hillside for orchards. The group moved out in the mid-1950s, and the hilltop was redeveloped with subdivisions.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built that section of Lake Shore Drive in the mid-1960s to accompany the new Lake Waco.
Bob Wallace, president of the Wallace Group, was in college at the time and tried to get a summer job working on the road because it offered a good paycheck.
“My wife and her parents lived out on one of the streets overlooking the lake, and we could look out the back patio and watch that road being built,” he said.
Wallace said the road was built flat like a normal city street, instead of like a highway, which would have been banked inward on the curve to keep cars hugging the road. Engineers call the banking a “superelevation.”
Over the years, Wallace said, the slope has sagged so that the road is now banked in the wrong direction — toward the guardrails and the lake.
“I think it’s gotten worse,” Wallace said. “It wasn’t good when it was new. And people drive like it’s a highway.”
Wallace said that when the road is wet and speeds are high, it’s easy to skid into the guardrail and then bounce off. That would explain why the guardrails are bent in several places, and why Lake Shore has a reputation for head-on collisions.
For example, on Dec. 15, 2011, a Hummer SUV hit a puddle while going downhill, then ran into a Lexus heading the other way, killing a 78-year-old woman, police reported. This January, two people were hospitalized after an SUV heading down the hill veered into the wrong lane, wrecking two cars in the opposite lane.
“It’s a very dangerous situation,” said Councilman Kyle Deaver, who represents the area. “I’m glad we’re taking action to fix the immediate issues and looking at a long-term solution. . . . Hopefully we can do some sort of short-term traffic safety improvement this summer.”
Wallace said his firm will look into the possibility of rebuilding the road to bank it inward, which could cost about $1.6 million. Other possibilities include flashing warning lights and a high-tech porous surface that makes the roadway less slippery in wet weather.
But a long-term fix of the slope problem could be much costlier.
Peter Allen, a Baylor University geologist who is consulting on the project, said the road rests on an unstable geological formation that runs from Sherman in North Texas to south of Waco. The underlying geology is a kind of lasagna of limestone and weathered shale, an unstable clay-like rock.
“It’s just a very difficult engineering environment,” Allen said. “The problem with that particular kind of shale is that it’s full of expansive clay. When it gets wet then dries out, that reduces its strength and it can result in slope failures.”
In the past, city officials have studied the possibility of using metal rods to anchor the slope in various places, or rebuilding the entire road on piers so that soil could simply slide under it. An engineering report in 2005 estimated that the pier project could cost more than $15 million.
But Wallace said the testing may find that the unstable geology is deeper than originally thought, meaning there’s a risk the entire slope could fail and destroy the road. In that case, the piers wouldn’t solve the problem, he said.
He said other options include reshaping the slopes to make them less steep, while being careful to preserve the root systems of trees and plants that now anchor the soil.
The scope of the study even includes some research on the impact of closing down that section of Lake Shore Drive. That option would be unpopular and would create traffic issues on surrounding roads, Deaver said.
“I’ve heard several people suggest we just close Lake Shore Drive through there,” he said. “I think that would be such a loss from a transportation perspective, and it’s one of the best views in Waco.”
Allen said the city will have to weigh the cost of engineering a solution against the benefit of the road.
“That is where you get to see Lake Waco,” he said. “It’s one of the more important scenic corridors of the city of Waco.”
Allen commended the city for the approach it is taking with Lake Shore Drive.
“This to me is the first time you’ve had a comprehensive look at that area that is holistic and looks at all the variables,” he said. “The team they’ve brought on to look at this is world-class. . . . Octavio has done a good job bringing this team together.”