Pa. turnpike planning ways to improve emergency response
April 5, 2016 2:40 PM
Motorists sit trapped on the turnpike during a January snow storm.
By Ed Blazina / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Pennsylvania Turnpike already has taken some steps and expects to implement more changes by the end of the year to better respond to incidents such as the January snowstorm that trapped more than 500 motorists on westbound lanes between Bedford and Somerset for more than 24 hours.
The commission Tuesday approved a 30-page report on the incident that included 22 recommendations to improve its response to emergencies. The storm dumped more than 36 inches of snow in the Somerset area the weekend of Jan. 22.
Those recommendations include:
• Developing more areas for tractor-trailers to park to get out of the way of snow-removal equipment;
• Storing more equipment and emergency food and water at maintenance facilities;
• Adopting emergency response plans for each of its five maintenance districts;
• Providing more frequent updates to trapped motorists;
• Coordinating weather-forecast information among agencies;
• Identifying more areas where mobile road dividers can be installed so they can be removed to provide better access to and escape from emergencies; and developing strike teams that can be sent to emergency sites.
Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said Tuesday that the commission already is reviewing storage areas for equipment, food and water; installing its first sliding median barrier this summer during a paving upgrade in the Pocono Mountains on the Northeast Extension; and working with Carnegie Mellon University to develop a way to monitor social media for accidents and other incidents and getting that information to other motorists.
Identifying additional emergency parking areas for tractor-trailers, most likely near interchanges, and developing emergency response plans and strike teams will be an ongoing process that could take longer, he said.
In a news release, turnpike CEO Mark Compton said the “after action review” by consultant engineering firm Michael Baker International Inc. gives the agency the opportunity to evaluate how it can improve its response to emergencies in the future.
A major factor in the January storm, he said, was tractor-trailer drivers who ignored warnings to stay in the right-hand lanes. When trucks using at least two lanes got stuck in heavy snow and jackknifed on the hill approaching the Allegheny Mountain Tunnel, they blocked all three lanes of traffic about 7:40 p.m. Jan. 22, the Friday when the storm started.
“Too many trucks were blocking lanes, making it difficult for our snowplows to keep lanes clear. As a result, passenger cars became trapped behind tractor-trailers,” Mr. Compton said.
As a result, traffic backed up behind the accident for miles, causing officials to move up planned speed and vehicle limits on the turnpike to 8:30 p.m. from midnight. Late the next morning, they closed the turnpike in both directions between Bedford and New Stanton so they could remove stranded vehicles, a process that took more than 24 hours.
More than 300 local emergency personnel joined state police, turnpike workers and the National Guard to distribute food, water and fuel to stranded vehicles, which included more than a dozen buses carrying people who had been in Washington, D.C., for the annual Right to Life March and the Duquesne University basketball team.
Closing the turnpike during a weather emergency isn’t practical, the study said, because it would divert trucks to local roads that are often incapable of handling them.
State House and Senate officials, who held hearings after the incident, said they were generally satisfied with the recommendations.
Nolan Ritchie, executive director of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the consultant recommendations are similar to what the committee will soon make. He said the committee probably doesn’t agree with all of the turnpike’s recommendations but called them “definitely the steps to take to reduce any backlog like this in the future.”
A similar review after a February 2014 multi-vehicle crash in Bucks County led to recommendations that helped the agency’s response to January’s storm, he said.
State Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Big Beaver and a member of the House Transportation Committee, said he supported the new recommendations but doubted they would be well-received by anyone who was stuck during the storm.
“It’s certainly disappointing to people stuck on the highway,” he said. “I’m glad no one was killed, but they certainly need a better response so people aren’t stuck for 24 hours.”
Ed Blazina: email@example.com or 412-263-1470.
Here is the full action response report that was approved by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission on Tuesday:
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