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Applying lessons learned from storm Thruway Authority director cites changes that helped prevent other fiascoes

New protocols put into place in the wake of the early-December snowstorm that stranded hundreds of motorists on the Thruway in Buffalo already have prevented similar fiascoes in other parts of the state, state officials told local state lawmakers Friday.

Prior to last week's storms downstate, for example, heavy-duty tow trucks were stationed at strategic locations along the Thruway before the snow hit, Thruway Authority Executive Director Michael Fleischer told the local delegation at a meeting at the University at Buffalo.

So when three tractor-trailers jackknifed in separate incidents during the heavy snow, the tow trucks were able to get each truck straightened out or off the road within 30 minutes. There was minimal traffic backup as a result, Fleischer said.

And should another monster storm bring traffic on the Thruway to a standstill, local Thruway officials and state troopers no longer will have to wait to hear from a supervisor in Albany for the go-ahead to close down I-90 as they did at the time of the Buffalo storm.

Many motorists who spent the night on the Thruway criticized state officials for allowing entrances to the highway to remain open Dec. 1, hours after a jackknifed tractor-trailer brought traffic to a standstill just as heavy snow, falling at two to three inches an hour, pounded South Buffalo and the Southtowns.

Next time, the decision to close the Thruway will be made locally.

In Buffalo, that means State Police Capt. Michael Nigrelli, the commander of the Western New York section of the Thruway, and Thomas Pericak, the Buffalo regional director of the Thruway Authority, would make the call together.

If they determined the Thruway needed to be shut down, they could immediately dispatch troopers and maintenance workers to entrances where they would move barrels and traffic cones in place to keep motorists from getting on the road.

Nigrelli said he and Pericak already have begun working closely, monitoring potential trouble spots.

"Since Dec. 1, I talk to him as much as I talk to my wife," Nigrelli quipped to The Buffalo News.

Such changes in the way emergencies are handled on the Thruway were explained Friday to the Western New York delegation of state legislators, the second such meeting since the storm. The meeting took place as the governor's office released a draft set of new guidelines for emergencies along the Thruway.

Over the last month and a half, state agencies have held dozens of "after-action" meetings locally and across the state to dissect what went wrong on Dec. 1 and 2 and to come up with solutions to prevent future problems by better communication and more streamlined interagency cooperation during emergencies.

Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore, said after the meeting that he was pleased with the progress.

"It's light years beyond what it appeared to be Dec. 1," he said.

e-mail:mbecker@buffnews.com

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