Murphy reacts to commuter ‘frustration’ — Administration caught off guard
WOODBRIDGE — Gov. Phil Murphy was blasted by many for the state's response to Thursday's snow storm. But the governor on Friday blamed a "lousy" forecast and the fact that school buses, commuters and road crews hit the road at the same time the snow began to fall.
"I appreciate the frustration we are hearing from commuters," Murphy said during a news conference at the Turnpike Authority's Traffic Management and Technology Center in Fords. Murphy said he was in Atlantic City and was aware of the impact as he made his way north on the Garden State Parkway.
Murphy came under heavy criticism for his initial reaction to the storm in which he blamed meteorologists for perceived delays in getting snow equipment on the road. The Democrat preached "patience" to drivers who sat for hours — some for as many as five to nine hours — on snow covered roads. Murphy's predecessor, Chris Christie, called into New Jersey 101.5 after having spent 4 hours trying to make what is usually a 35-minute trip.
"The snow fell harder and stronger than any one organization predicted," Murphy said, calling the Thursday snowfall a "perfect storm" of timing.
Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti admitted the Department of Transportation fell behind in their salting and plowing operation, which left drivers stranded for hours and roads not plowed or treated.
"I offer our apologies to all our New Jerseyans who last night experienced a really rough commute home. It's never the DOT's intention to impact our commuters, our residents in that way," Gutierrez-Scaccetti.
"We got behind the storm. We realize that. We will do a post-mortem and improve," the commissioner said, adding that she was in the Bedminster area on Routes 78 and 287 when the storm hit.
But both Gutierrez-Scaccetti and Murphy blamed what the governor called a "lousy forecast" from a number of sources, including the National Weather Service.
But meteorologists clapped back.
"My 'bottom line' of a terribly messy evening commute was spot on," New Jersey 101.5 Meteorologist Dan Zarrow said Friday. "My final worst-case scenario forecast called for 3 to 6 inches of snow throughout much of North Jersey and a period of freezing rain potentially leading to a solid sheet of ice on the roads. That's certainly a scenario that would have warranted heavy pre-treatment of roads statewide."
On Twitter, meteorologist Gary Szatkowski said New Jersey residents were being "scammed by senior political leadership."
Gutierrez-Scaccetti said that when the forecast called for nothing more than 4 inches, the DOT started a salting operation. As the snow quickly accumulated the DOT switched to a plowing operation.
"A plowing operation takes several trucks several lanes and they were not able to get through the congested areas," the commissioner said.
Murphy said the DOT brined highways ahead of the storm on Wednesday and had 1,800 pieces of equipment including plows and spreaders on the roads on Thursday.
The state's Republican chairman, Doug Steinhardt, called for Legislative hearings into the administration's preparedness.
"At the very least, we should expect efficient services from our government. Last night’s response was shameful," Steinhardt said Friday.
State Sen. Joe Cryan, D-Union, called on the administration to review its standard operating procedures.
"The intensity of yesterday's storm was clearly beyond expectations but its impact on people in my district and across the state was extreme in its consequences and the response from responsible state agencies is something that must be addressed immediately," Cryan said.
Democrats also criticized the Murphy administration.
Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman Dan Benson, D-Mercer, called it "poor handling" and requested that members of his committee be personally briefed on what happened by Nov. 26.
“We understand there was a change in the forecast; however, given New Jersey’s history with storms, it is always better to prepare for the worst… This did not happen yesterday and we must do better for our residents," Benson said in an open letter to Murphy. “I am heartened to learn that you are conducting a full review of the preparation and response to the storm and analyzing how the administration can coordinate better to keep New Jerseyans safe for the next weather event."
The governor said there was one fatality from the storm when a vehicle was hit by a train in New Providence.
NJ Transit spokesman Jim Smith said an eastbound train that left Gladstone Station at 4:37 p.m. struck a vehicle west of the Murray Hill station. That crash killed Susan Brown, 61, of New Providence. None of the 100 passengers and crew on board where injured, according to Smith.
Gutierrez-Scaccetti said that the Gladstone line, which remained closed through the morning commute, should be back in service by the afternoon commute. She said one rail of the North Jersey Coast Line, where service was also suspended, should have at least one rail open for some service.
Murphy said he had been in communication with the Port Authority about what he called an "unacceptable" situation at their bus terminal, which got so crowded that buses were not allowed in. The delays caused a logjam of commuters, forcing officials to close the doors at New York's Port Authority Bus Terminal.
State Police Col. Patrick Callahan, who attended the Friday morning briefing with Murphy, said that one crash during a snow event can bring an entire plowing or salting operation to a halt.
"They're stuck in the same delay you are," Callahan said. He suggested that "strike teams" be put in place in key spots known to be affected by the snow might help with future storms.
He named Jugtown Mountain on Route 78, the Allamuchy area on Route 80 and milepost 9 on Route 280. Snow mobiles were used to rescue stranded drivers from that area. during a snow storm last March.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Sergio Bichao contributed to this report.