Photo by Sonja Reis
Traffic on the McKees Rocks Bridge early on in the construction process.
By Elizabeth Perry
Public safety officials from Stowe and McKees Rocks have met with PennDOT representatives twice about safety concerns on the McKees Rocks Bridge and are largely dissatisfied with the state agency’s response.
The emergency responders’ concerns are focused on worries that emergency vehicles will not be able to reach people in time should further accidents occur on the bridge.
“It’s only a matter of time,” said Stowe Commissioner's President Robin Parilla in response to Stowe Fire Chief Matt Chapman, who spoke about the issue during an Oct. 10 workshop meeting.
McKees Rocks and Stowe Township police and fire chiefs met with PennDOT representatives about safety concerns on the McKees Rocks Bridge Sept. 22. District Chief of NorthWest EMS, Dylan LaPlante, also attended.
An accident that occurred on the bridge after construction began last month solidified Chapman’s concerns.
“It wasn’t a major accident, but it did require an ambulance,” said McKees Rocks Police Chief Rick Deliman.
By the police chief’s account, the ambulance took 20 minutes to reach the injured party, and then another 25 to leave the bridge.
“Had that been a life or death situation, they probably wouldn’t have survived,” Deliman said.
District Executive of Construction for PennDot, Jason Zang, said via email that traffic flow had “significantly improved” since the accident.
He anticipated traffic patterns would continue to improve with time, as drivers got used to changes or chose to avoid the bridge altogether.
Deliman suggested PennDOT officials reduce movement on the bridge to one lane for outbound traffic during rush hour in the morning, then have one inbound lane during evening rush hour. That restriction would allow an open lane for emergency vehicle access. This was deemed unfeasible by PennDOT.
“Alternating traffic detours, or one-way alternating traffic scenarios, would increase the chances of accidents on the bridge itself,” Zang said.
Zang said flipping traffic directions would increase “daily labor effort” and introduce “opportunities for driver error” which may actually increase the risk of a crash.
“We have seen vehicles mistakenly travel in the wrong direction, causing concern for head-on collisions. It is best to limit the changes in traffic patterns as much as possible, to not create confusion,” Zang said.
Leaving a lane open for emergency vehicles was not feasible, according to Zang, who said there was no way to ensure it was enforced without a concrete barrier.
“This creates an additional safety concern having vehicles where they should not be, which introduces further safety concerns on the project,” Zang said.
Chapman said the transportation officials sounded more concerned about traffic than safety. Stowe Police Chief Matt Preininger expressed similar feelings.
At the Stowe workshop meeting, someone in the audience asked the police chief what PennDOT had told them.
Preininger thumped twice on the floor.
“Pound salt,” he said.
During a second meeting with PennDOT, two weeks later on Oct. 6. they brought in State Rep. Anita Kulik, and suggested moving jersey walls. PennDOT officials agreed to install a system to change the light when it picked up a siren within 1,800 feet of the bridge.
“The pre-emptive, emergency, traffic signal system should greatly improve situations where there is an accident on the bridge, by holding the lights green and clearing traffic,” Zang said.
Zang described the installation of the signal system as “ongoing, and in the testing process.” He emphasized collaboration with area first responders was necessary. “We will need their assistance to adjust and tweak this system to ensure optimum performance,” Zang said.
Deliman said he was “optimistic” about the siren system and that he hoped if the system didn’t work, PennDOT would be open to change.
Chapman was less enthusiastic, saying he worried PennDOT’s response to their concerns would be inadequate.
Zang said PennDot was committed to “open communication and transparency.” PennDot is offering to lease staging areas for emergency providers to utilize on the opposite side of the bridge from their facility, to improve the time it takes to cross the bridge completely.
“We will continue to work with them, and stay in communication, while this important bridge project is completed,” Zang said.