Pa. Turnpike: ‘Series of incidents’ stranded 500 drivers during blizzard

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. (WHTM) – The Pennsylvania Turnpike says a series of incidents coupled with a historic snowfall led to last month’s incident where more than 500 drivers were stranded for hours on the grade to the Allegheny tunnels.

The Turnpike Commission on Wednesday released the initial findings of its investigation into the incident.

The review of events found that as the snow began falling on the night of Jan. 22, a tractor-trailer left the roadway around 5:20 p.m. and blocked the westbound lanes about five miles from the Breezewood exit. Traffic backed up nearly six miles in the nearly two hours it took to clear the scene.

At 7:40 p.m., two or three tractor-trailers were struggling to climb the eastern slope of the Allegheny Mountain. Plow teams were able to keep a single lane open for about an hour, but by 8:55 p.m. the snow continued to pile up and a three-mile backup was made worse when traffic from the previous incident was released.

Finally, around 9 p.m. maintenance crews stopped westbound traffic at milepost 132.2 and a seven-mile backlog developed, also made worse when traffic from the first incident began moving again, according to the Turnpike Commission.

Turnpike CEO Mark Compton said the decision to not detour traffic off the Turnpike was influenced by the fact that conditions on alternative routes were also impacted by the blizzard.

“The decision was made at the scene that motorists, given the alternatives, were safer on our system than they would have been if we moved them off of 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 in a statement.

“Having these motorists essentially shelter in place was the best option,” he added. “Obviously, we cannot have customers stranded for such an extended period of time. As part of our review, we are focused on identifying ways to ensure we have enough people and equipment where we need them before the next event.”

The Pennsylvania National Guard, state police, and PennDOT worked with Turnpike crews to rescue the stranded drivers on the following day. More than 200 people stayed in a shelter and 200 others stayed in hotels that night. The Turnpike lanes reopened Jan. 24.

Investigators are still examining the decisions made and actions taken before, during and after the event. The commission expects to conclude the review in early March.

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