Icy roads cause accidents, slow traffic across Western Pa.
Wintry weather caught PennDOT crews off-guard Friday, as thousands of shoppers and holiday weekend travelers took to unsalted roads that quickly turned icy, crippling traffic for the second morning in less than a week.
Unanticipated snow wreaked havoc on major arteries in Allegheny County, causing crashes that closed the Parkway West, Route 51 and Route 28 during the rush-hour commute. Forecasters had predicted a coating to an inch of snow, and PennDOT had a skeleton crew working on Thanksgiving night when a band of heavy snow began rolling through Western Pennsylvania about 1 a.m. It dumped as much as 3 inches in some areas of the West Hills by about 4:30 a.m.
Freezing rain contributed to hundreds of fender benders last weekend.
“We’re not real happy with the way things have turned out so far” this month, said Dan Cessna, chief executive for the PennDOT district in Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties.
“We mobilized to get more crews on the roads, but we had a lot of problems,” Cessna said. “There was a lot of traffic out for Black Friday,” along with other motorists.
“That was never in the forecast,” he said of the snowfall. “Trust me, if we knew there was a chance of getting 3 inches, we would have had a full complement (of plows) out.”
PennDOT’s Allegheny County division has 70 plows and uses State College-based AccuWeather for its weather forecasts.
Dave Dombek, senior meteorologist at AccuWeather, and Moon-based meteorologist Fred McMullen with the National Weather Service said it’s difficult to predict the impact from a band of snow until it shows up on radar — and actually happens.
“Normally, something like this happening in the middle of the night wouldn’t be that big of an impact,” Dombek said. “But the fact it happened on Black Friday made things worse, because there were probably a lot more people out at those hours than normally would be.”
The National Weather Service increased the odds of snow to 70 percent about 6 p.m. Thursday, McMullen said. A band of snow 10 to 15 miles wide arrived from Lake Erie, dumping about 2 inches in Moon and about an inch in most of Allegheny County.
Farther north, 5 inches fell in Butler, but PennDOT crews there beat the crush of Black Friday shoppers, an emergency dispatcher said.
“Some of these bands are hard to predict where they will hit,” McMullen said.
The Parkway West, used by about 80,000 motorists on an average day, became particularly treacherous between Green Tree and the Fort Pitt Tunnel when ice and snow caused accidents and disabled some vehicles. Authorities closed the highway about 4:30 a.m. so crews could tow vehicles.
PennDOT trucked in plows and salt from the opposite direction — going the wrong way through the inbound tunnel — to get to the icy hill. The road reopened about 8 a.m. PennDOT had about 30 plows on Allegheny County roads by then.
The parkway’s closure caused congested streets in Pittsburgh’s West End, making it difficult for city trucks to treat those roads. The city’s Public Works Department sent crews out overnight to salt bridges and hilly streets, and nearly 50 trucks were out by 9 a.m., Mayor Bill Peduto’s office said.
Authorities closed Route 28 southbound between the 40th Street Bridge and Downtown for 45 minutes, starting at 6:15 a.m., and Route 51 northbound near the West End Circle for an hour and a half, starting at 6:30 a.m.
Joe Stickles, owner of Stickles Towing in Hazelwood, said his business received a high volume of calls.
“The hard part is we can’t get around ourselves,” Stickles said, noting that one of his employees responding to a call got stuck overnight Thursday on the North Shore Expressway.
“The road wasn’t salted, and the police weren’t able to get to them, so everyone waited for hours.”
Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or [email protected]. Staff writers Margaret Harding and Megan Harris contributed to this report.