Thruway promises better response to prevent gridlock

New York state officials on Thursday promised to act more quickly and more decisively when problems on the roads threaten to strand drivers in their cars.

Responding to a 24-hour gridlock that trapped hundreds of people on a snowbound stretch of Interstate 90 near Buffalo earlier this month, elected officials, state police and transportation officials met behind closed doors to discuss what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again.

"We did not meet our expectations two weeks ago," Thruway Authority Executive Director Michael Fleischer said after the two-hour session. "We are doing better already but there's more than needs to be done."

Fleischer said the agency had a severe weather plan in place for the entire 570-mile cross-state highway, but there was no specific plan for the toll-free stretch just east of Buffalo where the Dec. 1 backup happened after a tractor-trailer jackknifed during a lake-effect snowstorm.

Long after traffic stopped, unsuspecting motorists continued to enter the Thruway at unstaffed on-ramps, only to end up stuck.

Next time, Thruway employees, state troopers and possibly volunteer firefighters will be dispatched to the entrances to block them, Fleischer said.

Local officials also will have greater authority to close the roadway, rather than leave the decision to those in Albany, he said, and to call in help from police, snowmobile clubs and fire departments. Once it becomes apparent the standstill will last a predetermined time, say two hours, rescuers will begin removing people from their cars, he said.

No one expected the backup near Buffalo to last as long as it did, he said. Workers assumed the snow would stop and traffic would get moving again.

"Our people on the front lines thought `20 minutes, another hour' and it just cascaded and then it got out of control where it became very difficult to even get the buses in. Once we made the decision to remove the people it became a very long process to do that," he said. "It all goes back to better planning and quicker and more decisive decision-making."

A detailed written emergency plan will be delivered to state lawmakers Jan. 14.

"If this happens again tonight, the mistakes will not be repeated," said Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, who organized Thursday's meeting with Assemblyman Robin Schimminger.