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LIRR president defends agency's handling of Thursday's snowstorm

Says Phillip Eng: "We could always do better in anything we do, but my goal was to say I got them home safely."

Commuters dodge the rain at the LIRR station

Commuters dodge the rain at the LIRR station in Mineola on Friday. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

LIRR president Phillip Eng defended the railroad’s performance during Thursday's snowstorm, although there were widespread delays and more than two dozen train cancellations.

Eng said Friday afternoon that the average delay was under 16 minutes and many of the cancellations were “strategic” and aimed at ensuring the railroad could move as many eastbound customers as possible during the rush hour, while avoiding “unacceptable crowding situations,” especially at Penn Station.

“It was a sloppy night, but I think given all the transportation issues across the New York Metropolitan Area, the Long Island Rail Road moved people home safely and we did our best to minimize their delays,” Eng said. “We could always do better in anything we do, but my goal was to say I got them home safely.”

An out-of-season wintry mix caught the Island and metropolitan area off guard after earlier forecasts called for a coating or at most 2 inches on the North Shore. Across Long Island, most areas ended up getting 3 to 6 inches. Salt trucks and plows, generally not expecting such a wallop, got stuck on the roads with the rest.

The mess had everyone from drivers to train riders wondering what went wrong. Residents told stories Friday morning of hourlong commutes taking five times as long.

With the LIRR, Eng said crews were out Friday doing “after action” assessments of some issues that arose Thursday, including at some problematic switching locations at the busy Harold Interlocking in Queens. But, Eng said, several initiatives in the railroad’s new LIRR Forward service improvement plan appeared to pay off Thursday night, including efforts to replace old utility poles and clearing vegetation near the tracks to prevent them from falling onto tracks. The one tree that did fall on the tracks in Bayside was on private property, Eng said.

In addition, 47 track switches that were recently fitted with “covers” to protect them from weather had no issues, Eng said.

“Everything that we have done proactively, I believe made a difference,” Eng said.  “It could have been far worse if we hadn’t been doing that.”

Several LIRR riders’ complaints, both Thursday and into Friday, focused on dangerous conditions at stations, including snow that did not appear to have been removed from platforms and stairways.

“We certainly had delays, but my issue is more so with the extreme lack of safety that we had while waiting for trains or walking to our cars,” said Deer Park commuter Stephanie Antoinette. “Simple things that don’t take much manpower, like salting platforms and stairs, would have made an already exhausting commute less dangerous.”

The railroad didn’t report being back “on or close” to schedule until nearly 1:30 a.m. Friday. The railroad attributed the problems to a range of complications, ranging from a vehicle stuck on the tracks near Gibson station to signal trouble in Brooklyn to a broken crossing gate near Central Islip to a fallen tree on the tracks in Bayside to switch problems in multiple locations.

On Friday, Long Island motorists had a mostly routine morning commute after spending hours the night before navigating sleet and snow.  

Robin Rosenberg, of Williston Park, told Newsday.com that a cousin who works in Westchester County and lives in Williston Park had a horrible drive.

"Her normally rush-hour commute of about an hour took her over 5½ hours in the snowstorm," Rosenberg wrote. "I defy you to find someone whose commute was worse!!!"

In Upton, National Weather Service meteorologists rushed Thursday afternoon to update their forecasts as they quickly became outdated. The unexpected onslaught of more snow and less rain came as a result of changing computer models that indicated slightly colder temperatures just as more precipitation developed, said Joe Pollina, National Weather Service meteorologist.

Dawn Bodami, of Deer Park, said her 50-minute commute from Lake Success to Deer Park took three hours Thursday night.

"It was the worst commute in the 11 years since I've been working here," Bodami wrote. "My normal route is LIE, but Waze [the driving app]   had me going through back roads and ending up on Ocean Parkway. It was crazy. I did not see one plow the entire time."

Area airports were also recovering from a slew of problems. Through about 1:30 p.m. Friday, there were 324 flight delays and 48 cancellations at Kennedy Airport — down from 588 delays and 204 cancellations Thursday, according to the website flightaware.com, which tracks flight delays.

At LaGuardia Airport, there were 433 delays and 128 cancellations on Friday, as compared with 323 delays and 359 cancellations Thursday.

Nassau’s bus provider, NICE Bus, returned to normal service on Friday after reporting systemwide “extreme delays” throughout Thursday night.

After the nightmarish evening, Friday was predicted to be mostly calmer, forecasters said. The day began with rain before 10 a.m., helping to wash away uncleared snow with temperatures in the low 40s but causing a "slushy commute," News 12 Long Island meteorologist Rich Hoffman said.

After miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic as major bridges and tunnels in the region abruptly shut down Thursday, stranding drivers for hours, the roads were mostly clear Friday morning, according to the state Department of Transportation.

The George Washington Bridge had sporadic closures in both directions Thursday as cars piled up in multivehicle crashes, and the wait time heading into New Jersey was at least three hours at one point. 

New York City bridges still had delays due to high winds and wet roadways Friday morning, the state said. Schools throughout the metropolitan area were closed or delayed on Friday.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio blamed what happened on the weather service's initial forecast, which called for a few inches of snow.

“I think this is an example that’s not as simple as people quote unquote dropping the ball,” de Blasio said on his weekly radio appearance on WNYC.

The rush-hour George Washington Bridge lane closures, which de Blasio said he can’t remember occurring in the past, radiated out and caused traffic paralysis all over the area. “I think the domino effect of that was huge,” he said.

“We gotta do better going forward,” de Blasio said, promising a “full operational review of what happened.”

De Blasio said that by the time the city realized how bad the snowstorm would be, “it was too late.”

Later, at a news conference at City Hall, de Blasio said he shared the frustrations of stranded commuters but declined to apologize, because, he said, the city could not have foreseen or prevented what happened.

Kathryn Garcia, the city sanitation commissioner, said the storm hit worst at rush hour — “a very, very challenging time.” Snow-clearing equipment got stuck in traffic, and she didn’t want to strand more equipment on the roads.

The speaker of the New York City Council, Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan), promised that lawmakers would conduct their own review of  when and how salt spreaders were or weren’t deployed, the city’s planning and other questions of preparation.

“It was still only 6 inches of snow! We’re New York City! We get blizzards. We get 12 inches. Fourteen inches! Eighteen inches! Two feet of snow. We should have been prepared to deal with six inches of snow, even if it was a record,” he said in Chelsea, standing beside a downed tree.

On the radiating effect from New York City to places such as Long Island: "It all had a cascading, domino effect on each other. I'm not sure it came from one spot. Clearly, when you shut down the George Washington Bridge, which is I think the busiest daily bridge in the United States of America, that is going to have an impact."

"For New Yorkers who sat in three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine hours of traffic last night: I'm sorry. We need to do a better job."

Passengers were temporarily halted from entering the crowded Port Authority Bus Terminal on Thursday, a spokesman said. The terminal was open Friday, the Port Authority said, but NJ Transit had delays and cancellations.  

As of Thursday night, Manhasset had the highest snowfall total in Nassau County, with 6.5 inches. North Massapequa and Syosset both had about 5.5 inches. In Suffolk County, North Babylon had 5.3 inches, while Commack and Medford had about 5 inches. 

Nassau County police reported nearly 200 crashes on Thursday, but there were few if any incidents overnight, a police spokesman said Friday morning. The worst of the crashes were from 2 to 9 p.m. Thursday, he said.

Suffolk County police, after reporting more than 250 crashes Thursday, also said the overnight and early morning hours were calm Friday. 

More than 35,500 PSEG Long Island customers lost power because of the storm, spokeswoman Elizabeth Flagler said. Extra crews worked through the night to restore power to about 32,200 of them.

Flagler said she expects most of the remaining 3,300 customers need work on their property and will have their power restored by the end of Friday.

“It’s the backyard of one person, the backyard of another, so it takes longer,” Flagler said.

Overnight into Saturday, the temperature will drop to about 35, feeling closer to 30 with wind chills — still warmer than the wind chills in the 20s early Thursday morning.

"Any puddles left over have the chance of freezing overnight," Hoffman said.

This weekend should have much more pleasant weather, with highs in the upper 40s and sun and clouds. Lows will be in the mid-30s.

Looking ahead to next week, there's good news, Hoffman said: "Travel day and Thanksgiving looks dry and a little cold."

With Matthew Chayes, Alfonso Castillo and Craig Schneider

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