While admitting no missteps in its storm planning, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission on Tuesday pledged to improve its weather-forecasting capacity after coming under fire for its response to a January blizzard that stranded hundreds of motorists for 24 hours.
The recommendation came in a 30-page "After Action Report" that summarized what commission officials had billed as its comprehensive, 10-week internal review of how it handled the storm.
But the report did little to pinpoint any failures of internal planning. Nor did it mention that top officials had relied on a single, inadequate weather forecast delivered hours before the first snowflakes fell - and later revised - even as other state agencies braced for what most knew would be a whopper of a storm.
The report did, however, urge the Turnpike to strengthen its "weather forecasting and situational awareness capabilities," while sidestepping the question of what needed improvement.
"The decisions made in response to and management of the event were based on the most current information available to the Turnpike and its response partners," said the report, released after being approved by commissioners in their meeting near Harrisburg. "Such decisions and actions helped to limit the expansion of a difficult and inconvenient situation from becoming a more serious event."
Testifying before the state Senate Transportation Committee in February, Turnpike Chairman Sean Logan said the agency had sent midday work crews home Friday, Jan. 22, rather than keeping them on overtime. Logan said the decision was based on a single AccuWeather Inc. forecast that underestimated the potency of what for days had been predicted to be a historic blizzard across the Mid-Atlantic.
Based on that forecast, the Turnpike had planned to restrict speed and truck traffic later in the night. Officials were unprepared, Logan said, for what was a much-earlier arrival of snow. Ultimately, three feet piled up along the roadway west of Bedford, paralyzing traffic for 12 miles.
Busloads of college athletes, Washington protesters, truckers, and hundreds of other commuters were stranded on an exitless stretch of Turnpike between Bedford and Somerset. Hundreds of emergency responders fought frigid, blustery conditions to keep them safe in place into the next night.
Gov. Wolf's top meteorologist later told the Inquirer he had warned Turnpike chief executive Mark Compton a full day before that at least 12 to 18 inches of snow would fall along the roadway.
In spare language, the report noted only that the agency had access to more than one batch of weather data, including a weather briefing that Friday morning generated by the state meteorologist. It does not say how, if at all, that was insufficient.
The report, by the Turnpike's general consulting engineering firm, Michael Baker International Inc., involved "400 hours' work by a team of staff and consultants," Logan said in a statement.
Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo, reached for comment, said only that the recommendations were a response to "challenges when it came to weather forecasting."
In testimony and earlier interviews, Turnpike officials had said they would explore installing removable highway medians to help avoid such logjams in the future. A similar recommendation emerged after an eight-hour winter logjam in Willow Grove in 2014, though the commission never acted to do so.
The report did note, however, that about 21 hours had passed before crews removed the first of three enormously heavy concrete median barriers. And it included such medians in its 22 recommendations.
The jam was directly caused by two tractor trailers that violated a restriction that they occupy just one lane in a construction zone. The two got stuck on a westbound incline, allowing no passage to plow trucks.
Among other changes the Turnpike accepted and is contemplating implementing is the creation of a cache of emergency rations and evaluating whether emergency-access ramps to and from the Turnpike are sufficient.