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Thruway nightmare stirs action by state ; Learning from storm, new rules aim to avoid a repeat of shutdown that stranded motorists

The state's nightmarish response to the early December snowstorm that shut down the Thruway in Buffalo and stranded motorists has prompted new guidelines for government agencies to better prepare for winter weather emergencies.

Those new plans include giving regional state officials the power to close the highway, improved ways of communicating with travelers and steps such as positioning tow trucks and all-terrain vehicles before the first snowflakes even fly.

"The concept of government dysfunction can be a fairly abstract one for many New Yorkers. But Dec. 3 was a life-and-death situation, and really an example of a failure that could have been avoided," said Howard B. Glaser, the new director of state operations under Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

A draft set of new guidelines for emergencies along the Thruway, a copy of which was obtained by The Buffalo News, is being released this morning during a public session called by the Western New York legislative delegation to hear from state and local agencies with Thruway-related responsibilities.

The guidelines and additional operational changes by the Thruway Authority, including new requirements for intra-agency communication and decision-making in emergencies, are a direct response to the series of mistakes made during the December snowstorm that stranded hundreds of motorists along the Thruway for 17 hours or more.

"There's no question the Thruway Authority acted in an incompetent manner," Glaser said in an interview Thursday.

The authority will be among the state and local agencies to discuss the Dec. 3 situation and outline ways to avoid repeating the mistakes during the public hearing this morning in the Center for Tomorrow on the University at Buffalo's North Campus in Amherst.

Expected to be unveiled are steps such as additional portable emergency signs, a new notification system for highway incidents and the pre-positioning of vehicles such as tow trucks -- an idea that saw its first use by the state Department of Transportation earlier this week on ramps along the Long Island Expressway during a snowstorm.

The authority also is considering installation of gates that can be lowered automatically during emergencies to keep vehicles from entering at the free section of the Thruway in Western New York during times when the highway is closed.

The Cuomo administration, which took office a month after the snowstorm, has drafted a new set of guidelines that include letting regional Thruway and State Police officials decide such matters as when to shut down the highway during an emergency -- instead of awaiting word from a central authority in Albany.

Clarity is provided on the closing of lanes by the State Police for safety reasons. The plan in Western New York provides that a Thruway traffic supervisor or a State Police Troop T supervisor -- at sergeant's level and above -- can close one or all lanes of the Thruway using their judgment and specified criteria. Those criteria would include loss of "situational awareness," such as reports from troopers on the scene, when traffic cameras stop working during an emergency or if plows cannot adequately keep up with a major storm.

A new Weather Emergency Action Team -- with the heads of the Thruway, the State Police, the state Department of Transportation, the state Office of Emergency Management and the Division of Military and Naval Affairs -- also has been created to avoid the kinds of agency coordination problems experienced during the December episode. The team met twice this week during a storm that hit hardest in the eastern section of the state.

The draft guidelines call for a clear communication line to the tops of the state agencies depending on the severity of a Thruway emergency. It provides a direct communication chain in the event of a major disruption -- "actual or possible" -- involving the various state agencies, as well as local emergency managers.

At the heart of the new plan is to have equipment and personnel better positioned before a storm strikes.

"You're going to have a jackknifed trailer in a snowstorm. It's going to back up a number of cars, but it doesn't have to back up 300 cars," said a state official involved in the new guidelines.

Glaser said the Buffalo situation was the topic of his first meeting during the morning of Jan. 1, just hours after Cuomo took office. He said the agency heads at the meeting said that it was the first time they had all gathered in one place to discuss a winter plan for the Thruway.

"It was specifically to discuss that incident and to express in the strongest possible terms that that was not going to happen on Gov. Cuomo's watch," Glaser said he told the agency heads.

The new document calls for a decentralized decision-making chain so state officials in a region "are able to mitigate circumstances that threaten the safety of travelers."

It puts into writing the precise roles for each of the involved state agencies before a storm or during an emergency so agency chiefs and operational staff "have a clear understanding of what is expected and are held accountable," Glaser added in a letter to local lawmakers.

The state envisions a Thruway system that first seeks to stay open, but can more swiftly shut down before a serious emergency develops. It also defines the titles of the officials who must respond to the scene of an emergency and composition of command teams to make decisions on traffic routing, public notification and removal of vehicles and travelers.

It also sets up new criteria for the Thruway Authority to inform local media of a highway shutdown and better use of a toll-free telephone information hotline for motorists to get timely information. The plan calls for a "fully staffed" Thruway operations center "to manage all emergency calls.

For the scene of a Thruway shutdown, the new guidelines give the State Police command post representative the "ultimate decision-making" abilities. The state Office of Emergency Management has the responsibility, depending on the seriousness of the incident, of helping coordinate responses by federal, state and local agencies to support the State Police and the Thruway Authority.

The plan also calls for a better flow of information to travelers.

Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, said that "nothing but good" can come from the guidelines. "The refreshing, new thrust of this plan," he said, "is a recognition of local, on-the-scene decision-making, which did not occur in the December debacle on the Thruway outside Buffalo."

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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