Keeping vehicles on the Pennsylvania Turnpike during a major snowfall that stranded hundreds of motorists for more than 24 hours last month was the safest decision under the circumstances, turnpike officials and state police said Wednesday.
Turnpike chief executive Mark Compton told the state House Transportation Committee that alternative routes onto which motorists could have been diverted also were impacted by the blizzard and drivers "were safer on our system."
"Having these motorists essentially shelter in place was the best option," Compton said.
Maj. Edward Hoke, patrol director for the state police, said the fact that there was no loss of life shows that the decision to "not scatter traffic in areas not sufficient to handle it" was a wise one.
"If the snow had not continued to fall, we may have been successful in alleviating the situation quicker than we did," he said.
During the 90-minute hearing, lawmakers generally agreed that keeping travelers on the turnpike was the right call.
"I think if you put folks off in those side roads, they would get stuck," said Rep. Matt Reese, R-Somerset. "I think that decision was head-on."
Rep. Rob Matzie, D-Beaver, called it "the worst possible situation at the worst possible place."
Rep. Mike Reese, R-Mount Pleasant, agreed but said advance preparation and proper coordination with state emergency management officials "is what will allow us not to have people sitting on the turnpike."
Turnpike officials said they are taking steps to be better prepared for such a situation in the future.
"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," he said.
Compton said the recent expansion of the turnpike from four to six lanes wide in many areas has prompted growing concern there may not be enough resources to meet the growth in traffic.
"As our road has evolved ... we're not adding equipment at the level the road is expanding," Compton said.
More than 500 vehicles -- including a bus loaded with the Temple Gymnastics Team -- were stranded in groups on a 16-mile stretch of the turnpike in Somerset and Bedford counties, about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, after two tractor-trailers became disabled Jan. 22 as they tried to climb the grade to the Allegheny tunnels and got stuck in the westbound lanes. The eastbound turnpike was later closed to give emergency road crews access to the jammed westbound lanes, so they could be cleared of snow and vehicles. More than 200 people stayed in shelters and another 200 in hotels after their vehicles were freed.