I thought we had this Thruway-closing thing figured out.
It’s not like we don’t get enough practice. This is Buffalo, which in the last few days cemented – likely for our lifetimes – its national reputation for lake-effect snow. Major storms blow through all the time. You would think that Thruway Authority officials would have absorbed the message: Get out in front of the snow, instead of burying drivers in it.
Maybe after a few more driver-stranding calamities, Thruway Authority officials will catch on.
As America knows, a merciless lake-effect storm in the last few days dumped multiple feet of snow from the Southtowns into South Buffalo. It was no surprise; we knew it was coming. Yet some travelers were stranded in their vehicles for two nights. By the time the storm-afflicted stretch of the Thruway was officially closed, jackknifed tractor-trailers blocked the road, and pelting snow cemented vehicles in place. Drivers with bursting bladders, groaning stomachs, parched throats and chilled limbs waited long hours for help.
Worse, this wasn’t the first time. We saw virtually the same thing four years ago, when a major storm stranded drivers along a miles-long stretch of the Thruway for more than 17 hours.
We need to stop seeing this movie.
Andrew Cuomo, who as governor controls the Thruway Authority, claimed the roadway was closed in time and – essentially – blamed stranded drivers, whom he said “violated” the road closure. The response wasn’t surprising. In Cuomo’s bare-knuckled view, the best defense is a good offense.
But the stranded travelers were not an assortment of scofflaws, malcontents and anti-SAFE Act activists. They were regular people. Many of them told The Buffalo News that they got no indication the road was closed – if indeed it was when they got on.
The governor can blame the victims if he wants. The fact that a miles-long stretch of a high-speed road devolved into a parking lot spoke for itself.
“Obviously, you can look at what happened and see we didn’t close the road early enough,” Thruway Authority board member Donna Luh told me. “I wouldn’t want to be one of the people stuck on the road, listening to anyone say how good everything was.”
No argument there.
Luh, who represents Western New York on the Thruway board, was refreshingly honest about the authority’s failings after the 2010 storm. She promised reforms. Changes since then include removable gates at 16 Western New York entrance ramps and local Thruway officials given closing power, instead of detouring decisions through Albany. It made a difference last January, when officials closed the Thruway early into a blizzard and avoided disaster.
Lesson learned, lesson forgotten.
Among the Thruway-stranded this time was a bus carrying the Niagara University women’s basketball team. Its plight was Skyped across America via CNN.
This isn’t just embarrassing; it’s life-threatening. We’re lucky that no stranded driver has died. That isn’t a toll anyone ought to pay.
In the age of technology, in a snow-pounded region, there is no excuse for this nonsense. Buffalo has been blasted by lake-effect storms since before Henry Ford rolled out the Model T. It’s 2014. We ought to have a road-closing policy in place.
Local school officials got in front of the weather years ago, after the infamous November 2000 midday storm stranded countless kids on afternoon buses. Schools began closing on the forecast of major storms. The same policy should apply to lake-effect-afflicted stretches of the Thruway.
It’s not nuclear physics: Close storm-targeted sections of the road when snow starts flying. Use digital road signs and media to spread the word. Where there are no gates, police can block Thruway entrances with traffic cones.
“We need to get more proactive,” said Luh, who praised Thruway workers and staff for their storm efforts. “There are discussions that need to take place and questions that have to be answered.”
Granted, Thruway officials want to keep travelers happy and commerce moving. Beyond that, Thruway tolls pad the state budget. Closing the road around metro Buffalo for a couple of days costs the authority tens of thousands of dollars in lost tolls.
It’s a sacrifice the authority needs to make. A major storm shuts portions of the Thruway, officially or otherwise.
It’s better to close it with no one on it instead of stranding hundreds of scared, freezing travelers.
The narrow nature of the lake-effect snow band makes these storms easy to track and to avoid. Given fair warning of foul weather, drivers can turn back or detour out of harm’s way. It’s the better way.
Thankfully, no stranded driver has died on the Thruway. But if we keep playing lake-effect roulette, I fear it’s only a matter of time.