Turnpike officials relied on outdated forecast when preparing for snowstorm
Officials say they relied on an early, less-serious forecast in preparing for last month's blizzard
February 16, 2016 11:47 PM
Michael Watkins via the Associated Press
Traffic is stalled on turnpike following a severe storm in January.
By Ed Blazina / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Better information, including a more accurate weather forecast, would have helped the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission manage last month’s snowstorm that stranded more than 500 vehicles between Bedford and Somerset, officials told a state Senate hearing Tuesday.
Although a major snowstorm was in the forecast for days before Jan. 22, it arrived several hours earlier than expected and dumped three to four times more snow than predicted in that area, commission Chairman Sean Logan told a joint meeting of the Senate Transportation Committee and Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee.
The committees are reviewing the response to the storm, which left some motorists stranded for more than 24 hours. Several hundred local first responders, state police and members of the National Guard went vehicle to vehicle to provide food and make sure no one needed medical attention until the toll road was cleared.
Mr. Logan said the turnpike’s reports from AccuWeather had the worst of the storm not arriving until late evening Jan. 22. As a result, it allowed its morning shift to leave at 3 p.m. that day with plans to call workers back at midnight.
But at 3:15 p.m., weather forecasters upgraded the snowfall prediction for Somerset to 18 inches, from 5 inches or less. Turnpike officials didn’t receive another weather report for 6½ hours, when snow was falling at a rate of nearly 2 inches an hour.
The actual snowfall was more than 35 inches.
“If we knew it was coming quicker and falling faster, we wouldn’t have let them go home,” Mr. Logan said. The workers were called back before midnight to help those already on duty, but by that time traffic was at a standstill after a series of tractor-trailers jackknifed to block the westbound lanes on the steep hill approaching the Allegheny Mountain Tunnel.
Several committee members noted that television stations in Harrisburg and Philadelphia were updating the weather with heavier snowfall predictions throughout the day.
Turnpike CEO Mark Compton said that, in general, the agency also needs to get more accurate information about conditions from its personnel on the scene. That would improve the agency’s response, he said.
“We still need to do a better job training people in the sheds to ask the right questions so we can have the right response,” he said.
Craig Shuey, the turnpike’s chief operating officer, said the agency didn’t consider closing the roadway before the trucks jackknifed about 8:30 p.m. because the main alternative in most instances was Interstate 70. That highway is farther south and began getting snow before the turnpike.
“Closing the roadway didn’t make a lot of sense because of that,” he said. ”We did believe we could keep the highway open.” As conditions worsened, the turnpike did close to all traffic between Breezewood and New Stanton at 1 p.m. Jan. 23.
Maj. Edward Hoke, director of the state police Bureau of Patrol, said troopers initially were involved in moving traffic through the area.
“We went from highway management to a rescue mission,” he said. “Within a few hours, we realized it became a life-safety issue for us.”
Another factor that made the situation more difficult to handle was that part of the hill approaching the tunnel was under construction, Mr. Shuey said.
That work, which reduced traffic from three lanes to two in some areas, had “a very significant impact” on the backup because it made it more difficult to get emergency vehicles to the problem area.
As a result, the agency will review future construction plans to provide alternatives for responding during an emergency, he said.
In addition, the agency will stock maintenance sheds with more food and water to help motorists who may be stranded for long periods. Those stranded quickly used the supplies that were available, and emergency workers had to go to convenience stores near the turnpike to bring back supplies.
The commission plans to release a final report on the snow emergency with recommendations in the next few weeks.
“We want to learn from this,” Mr. Logan said. “Obviously, the turnpike commission recognizes we need to be held accountable for our management of this emergency.”
Ed Blazina: email@example.com or 412-263-1470.