Penndot Tow-truck System Hits The Roads Around Area The Service Is Intended To Keep Traffic Flowing, But Not Through Jams The Size Of Monday's On The Schuylkill.

Posted: July 19, 2000

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation rolled out its lime-green safety-service tow trucks on major highways in the area for the first time yesterday, one day after the Schuylkill Expressway was shut down for six hours by a monster traffic jam.

But while the tow trucks were warmly received by those who were helped - and there was at least one glowing review - even partial solutions to problems as severe as Monday's 12-mile backup appear to be years away.

In responding to 42 situations yesterday - from fixing flat tires to assisting at multi-car crashes - the new service trucks helped minimize holdups.

Compared to Monday's epic jam, "the savings in [motorists'] time may not be as dramatic, but if you compound it, it's just as effective," said PennDot district administrator Andrew Warren.

Meanwhile, state police explained why the jam caused by a jackknifed tractor-trailer on the westbound expressway, two miles east of the Conshohocken exit, took six hours to untangle.

Getting to the rig's spilled load of fuel and non-hazardous granular plastic was the hard part.

"The combination of that granular material and the fuel made the road like a skating rink - nothing could get through," said State Police Sgt. Wayne D. Mason, patrol supervisor at the Belmont barracks.

In addition, the accident occurred on a four-mile stretch between the Gladwyne and Conshocken exits, where traffic coming upon the wreck had no way to get off the highway.

"It took the trooper responding about 15 or 20 minutes to get to the scene," Mason said. "And traffic backs up in no time on I-76. That's the worst possible spot for an accident for a backup."

The wreck happened when a tractor-trailer driven by Jose Pinto of Harrison, N.J., struck a tractor-trailer that had stopped on the shoulder. Pinto's rig bounced off the disabled truck and smashed into the concrete highway divider, dumping its messy load.

No one was hurt seriously and no charges have been filed, police said; an investigation is continuing.

By the time state police realized the scope of the cleanup, the 12-mile backup was well on its way to developing.

A key to Monday's jam was that motorists continued getting onto the westbound Schuylkill well after the accident happened, about 10:45 a.m.

PennDot is working on a communications system that officials hope can prevent similar tie-ups in the future, although much of it will not be in place for two to five years.

From a traffic-control center at district headquarters in King of Prussia, operators control 23 cameras trained on portions of Interstate 95; eight trained on the Blue Route, and nine watching the Vine Street Expressway. Also being installed are electronic signs that warn motorists of trouble ahead.

By the time PennDot installs all the cameras, much of the expressway network, including the Schuylkill and Routes 202, 422 and 309, will also be covered. In all, about 175 miles of highway will be monitored by cameras.

When the pieces are in place, traveling should be easier, according to Karl Ziemer, director of the PennDot Traffic Control Center.

"I envision the day when people wake up in the morning and turn to a traffic channel. You'll find out if your route has a problem, and you can decide whether you want to take the bus or train," Ziemer said.

"What we have now is a lot of different people sharing different bits of information. If there was one-stop shopping for traffic information, people would go there."

Yesterday, PennDot's small fleet of lime-green service trucks began helping to keep traffic moving, one small incident at a time.

The three trucks will operate weekdays from 5:30 to 9:30 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m. on about 30 miles of the Schuylkill, the Vine Street Expressway and I-95 within the city limits. There is no charge.

Motorists needing assistance cannot contact the tow trucks directly, but can call 911. Police will relay messages to PennDot.

Mike Demeno, one of the new tow truck operators, helped out at a five-car accident on the Schuylkill near Spring Garden Street. After sweeping up debris, he made one damaged vehicle driveable by prizing a mangled bumper away from a rear wheel with a crowbar.

The driver, Milton Downing of Wilmington, was stunned.

"I can't believe this," Downing said. "It's wonderful. I'm going to send this guy a card."

Bill Ordine's e-mail address is bordine@phillynews.com.

Inquirer suburban staff writer Jaik Sanders contributed to this article.

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