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Mayor apologizes for mistaken GW bridge ban

A view of the traffic over the Queensboro

A view of the traffic over the Queensboro Bridge. Commuters with fewer than three people in their vehicles are banned Thursday and Friday from crossing all East River bridges except the George Washington Bridge. (Nov. 1, 2012) Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

Commuters with fewer than three people in their vehicles are banned Thursday and Friday from crossing all East River bridges except the George Washington Bridge -- where the mayor said those restrictions were accidentally put into place this morning.

The ban into Manhattan, similar to the HOV restrictions for the 1999 transit strike and then after Sept., 11, 2001, and in place for other emergencies, was announced Wednesday by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In the case of the New York-bound George Washington, police mistakenly set up checkpoints where drivers were turned away -- in direct contradiction to the mayor's directive, which said there were no restrictions.

"I'm sorry," Bloomberg said Thursday. "They'll fix it.

"If we had people in wrong places," he said, "it was the first day getting it going. Hopefully it will be better tomorrow."

Some Long Islanders who are living without electricity said they had no idea the ban was in effect -- or what restrictions were being enforced.

Until, that is, they were in their cars, trucks and SUVs, on the road Thursday morning.

"You have to count on things being like this," Steve Phillips, an Otis Elevator repairman, said Thursday as he an a co-worker stood on the Long Island Rail Road platform in Ronkonkoma -- waiting for a train after calling off their morning drive to the city en route.

Phillips said he and fellow worker Campbell Smith started their drive at about 6 a.m., only to hear on the radio about the restrictions. They didn't have three people in their truck.

Forced to take the train, they couldn't bring all their work tools and equipment needed to address all their repair issues.

"It hampers our ability to fully do our work," Phillips said, "because we don't have all the equipment needed. But at least we'll be in [Manhattan] to do what we can."

Jams on the westbound Long Island Expressway as well stretched all the way to the Cross Island Parkway at the Nassau-Queens border or before Triborough Bridge / RFK Bridge-bound traffic was snarled on the Grand Central back to at least Citi Field.

There was a small glimmer of good news, though.

While the drive was proving to be a nightmare, commuters were finding that trains, buses and subways were free -- even though the service was far from being fully restored.

Late Wednesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had declared a "transportation emergency" and the subways, rails and buses will not charge fares.

The governor said Metropolitan Transportation Authority fares, including those on the Long Island Rail Road, would be waived through Friday to help cut down on road congestion coming into the city.

"We hope it encourages people to take mass transit," Cuomo said, adding that the crush of drivers Wednesday caused "an intolerable and dangerous situation."

The travel restriction was ordered as the region's transportation system started limping toward a full restoration of service. Limited railroad service started Wednesday afternoon in the city, and limited subway service started Thursday.

Bloomberg's carpooling edict also was ordered for the Lincoln Tunnel. The Hugh L. Carey Tunnel, formerly the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and Holland Tunnel remain closed due to storm damage.

It was unclear when those tunnels will again open.

Getting more of the region's public transit system functioning is the challenge, MTA chairman Joseph Lhota said.

"That's our overriding goal -- to get all of our eight million customers that we have every single day back to the system as quick as possible."

With subways and train systems crippled by the storm, traffic increased Wednesday, slowing to a crawl in New York City -- especially Manhattan.

"The streets just cannot handle the number of cars that have tried to come in," Bloomberg said.

He suggested drivers of vehicles with fewer than three occupants offer rides to people who may be trying to cross.

Of course, drivers across the metropolitan area also face another huge problem -- and that's where to get gas for those cars, trucks and SUVs.

Even before dawn Thursday lines formed outside the few gas stations that had gas -- and, power to operate pumps -- in Nassau and Suffolk. Some stations had yellow crime scene tape around nonfunctioning pumps, while others had makeshift handwritten signs taped to pumps that read: "No Gas!"

Some had signs that read: "Diesel Only."

Others were simply darkened -- no lights, no gas.

That made it even more important that both the LIRR and NICE Bus were again operational, even on a limited basis.

Long Island bus riders will welcome that starting Thursday morning NICE Bus was restoring 80 percent of all service -- and said it will be adding routes as road conditions improve, according to a statement Wednesday from Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano's office.

Routes will operate on a regular weekday schedule and will not charge fares through Friday. Suffolk County Transit, which has not run any buses since last Friday, said it would return to regular service Thursday.

The LIRR said it is operating hourly service between Jamaica and Penn Station and Jamaica and Atlantic Terminal, Brooklyn, as well as between Ronkonkoma and Penn -- and Great Neck and Penn.

In a statement issued Thursday morning, the MTA said: "Customers should anticipate crowded conditions on all LIRR trains that run until more service is restored. The LIRR is operating with only two of the four East River tunnels."

And, the authority said, it "will be sharing" those two tunnels with Amtrak, which owns the tunnels, and N.J. Transit.

"For safety reasons," the MTA said, "some trains my be required to skip stations if they become overcrowded."

Customers are advised to "stagger" their departure times to ease that overcrowding.

Railroad president Helena Williams said the agency was focused on restoring its four busiest lines -- Port Washington, Ronkonkoma, Babylon and Huntington. Only then will the railroad turn to lines with lighter ridership, including Hempstead and Far Rockaway.

Coastal areas like Oyster Bay and Long Beach, which suffered "tremendous damage," could take longer, as could portions of the system in eastern Suffolk, Williams said.

"We recognize that we need to get as much service out there as we can," Williams said, "Every day it will get better."

The LIRR will honor October monthly tickets through Nov. 5, officials said.

New York City's major airports are offering limited service Thursday. LaGuardia Airport opened Thursday at 7 a.m. with limited flights, Port Authority officials said.

On Wednesday, airline service was restored at Kennedy, Newark-Liberty and Long Island-MacArthur airports for the first time since Sandy hit.

But departure boards at Kennedy lit up with red cancellation notices for flights to cities across the United States, Europe and Asia. "It's not been fun," said Thomas Melcher, a Frankfurt banker whose five-day vacation with his wife, Christine, was interrupted by Sandy.

NY Waterway will begin modified East River ferry service Thursday, officials said.

With Anthony M. DeStefano

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