Turnpike officials defend agency’s decisions in snowstorm
Pennsylvania Turnpike officials said Wednesday that a series of events, combined with historic snowfall, contributed to stranding hundreds of vehicles on the toll road last month during Snowstorm Jonas.
Turnpike Commission CEO Mark Compton defended the agency’s decision to close the roadway, rather than detour motorists, because he said drivers were safer staying in their cars on the turnpike.
“It is important to consider the conditions on secondary roads and in the communities where this additional traffic would have been diverted,” Compton said. “Having these motorists essentially shelter in place was the best option.”
The commission completed the first installment of its “After-Action Review” on Monday and shared the findings with lawmakers on the House Transportation Committee.
State Rep. William Keller of Philadelphia, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said officials made the right decision.
“They’re the people we ask to keep us safe, and that’s the decision they made,” Keller said. “As they pointed out, it was a big inconvenience, but everybody was safe. There were no injuries, no life lost.”
Rep. Mike Reese, a Republican committee member from Mt. Pleasant, agreed that officials made the best decision they could at the time.
“That said, I think being prepared in advance, proper coordination with PEMA (the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency), is what will allow us not to have people sitting on the turnpike.”
The Jan. 22 snowstorm dropped more than 2 feet of snow along parts of the turnpike, and officials with the agency have been criticized for not closing the roadway sooner or moving fast enough to help drivers who were stranded as long as 24 hours. The incident drew national attention as stranded motorists posted photos and pleas for help to social media. State officials promised to examine the response, and Turnpike Chairman Sean Logan apologized.
Keller said officials conceded they could have done a better job communicating about stranded vehicles and faster-than-expected snow accumulations.
The turnpike report laid out a brief timeline of events, which the Trib reported last week :
• Plow trucks began spreading salt and other de-icing materials along the highway by 3:30 p.m. Jan. 22. Crews began team plowing at 4 p.m.
• At 5:21 p.m., the turnpike’s Traffic Operations Center was notified of a single-vehicle accident involving a tractor trailer carrying 37,000 pounds of chocolate leaving the road and blocking lanes at milepost 155.5 westbound. It took 1 hour, 50 minutes to clear the incident scene; during that time, 5.6 miles of backlog developed.
• At 7:40 p.m., the center was notified that two or three tractor trailers were struggling to climb the slope near the Allegheny Mountain at milepost 123 westbound. Plows were able to keep one lane open for some time to allow traffic to pass, but by 8:55 p.m., snow accumulation and gathering cars and trucks made it increasingly difficult to navigate the terrain. About 3 miles of backlog formed.
• At 7:55 p.m., plow trains — four trucks in a staggered formation — began running.
• At 9:07 p.m., the turnpike’s Kegg Maintenance crews stopped traffic at mile 132.2 westbound to prevent additional westbound vehicles from entering a construction zone at milepost 129, and a 7-mile backlog developed. This backlog was worsened by the release of 5.6 miles of backlog from the milepost 155.5 incident.
“I can assure you that we made every effort, summoned every available resource and took every step possible to keep travelers safe,” said Logan, a former state senator and former mayor of Monroeville.
When asked about the turnpike’s report, Gov. Tom Wolf made clear the agency is independent of his administration and praised the actions of the Department of Transportation, which is responsible for interstates and other state-owned roads.
“The turnpike is responsible for making sure that the turnpike is clear when something happens,” Wolf said during a stop at Clairton Elementary School.
“Now I don’t want to cast aspersions or point fingers, but in Pennsylvania, we actually have a Turnpike Commission which is responsible for the — guess what? Turnpike. And the rest of the state’s responsibility is the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. … The state actually did a really nice job, and I’m very proud of what PennDOT did, the state police, the National Guard and PEMA when they were all called in by the turnpike to alleviate the situation.”
Reese took issue with Wolf’s characterization. He said that once Wolf declared a state of emergency, he put PEMA in charge of preparing for and managing storm response.
“So we can’t look and say, ‘Well, you’re the turnpike and you’re on your own,’ ” Reese said. “It doesn’t work that way. For the governor to say the turnpike is on its own or that it’s their job alone, I don’t agree with that.”
Though not directly in charge of operations, Wolf’s Transportation secretary, Leslie Richards, sits on the Turnpike Commission, one of five commissioners.
The second phase of the Turnpike Commission’s review is expected to be completed in early March.
Kari Andren is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2856 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Liz Behrman contributed.
is a former freelancer.