Jim Nels is fed up.
Nels, of Baldwinsville, is a business owner who drives a Chevy pickup truck that stands just over six feet tall.
“I have commercial plates on my truck because I use it for work, and I use Onondaga Lake Parkway frequently,” Nels said. “It’ll cost me and my workers more time and energy to drive around the Parkway. I would say there are tens of thousands of pickups, vans, Jeeps – all low commercial vehicles – that use the Parkway every week. Do you think any of them have hit that bridge?”
Nels is one of many drivers annoyed that the New York State Department of Transportation will soon enact a commercial traffic ban on Onondaga Lake Parkway, one of the most traveled routes between the city of Syracuse and the northern suburbs. According to the DOT, restricting all commercial vehicles from using the Parkway is the only way to ensure travelers’ safety on the route.
The measure comes in the wake of last fall’s Megabus crash after the bus driver, following his personal GPS, ignored multiple warning signs and crashed into the 10’9” CSX railroad bridge, killing four people and injuring numerous others. Several other accidents have taken place at the bridge over the years.
“It comes down to ensuring safe passage on Onondaga Lake Parkway,” said William Reynolds, public information officer for the New York State Department of Transportation. “The nine-month study, reviews of multiple bridge accidents, meetings with CSX representatives and local officials, [Monday’s] grand jury recommendation, all of these things taken together meant that DOT deciding that banning commercial vehicles altogether would be the best approach to enhancing public safety on the highway.”
Reynolds also pointed out that not all pickup trucks are commercial vehicles.
“Pickup trucks can also be registered as passenger vehicles,” he said. “Those vehicles that would be allowed – and it would be up to the person who owns that particular vehicle to determine whether their vehicle should be registered as a commercial or a passenger vehicle.”
Commercial vehicles should instead use Old Liverpool Road, which Reynolds said would add just a couple of minutes to their travel time.
Reynolds said that deliveries to and pickups from sites on either side of the bridge could still be completed; for example, someone making a delivery to Ste. Marie among the Iroquois or Onondaga Lake Park in a commercial vehicle could still do so. In addition, emergency vehicles are exempt from the ban.
“It all comes down to public safety,” Reynolds said. “Over and over and over again.”
But State Sen. John DeFrancisco called the ban “overkill,” saying that to ban all commercial traffic for the negligence of one person was unfair.
“Most vehicles cannot hit that bridge,” DeFrancisco said. “It’s overkill, to put it nicely, to prevent all commercial vehicles from using that road. There are other ways to keep Onondaga Lake Parkway safe. The police have more to do than simply stop vehicles with commercial plates on the parkway when there’s no risk of causing problems.”
Indeed, DeFrancisco said enforcement of the ban would be an issue.
“I can’t imagine this being enforced,” he said. “The only case is if someone is already speeding and they get a speeding ticket and then another citation on top of it. There’s not going to be any crackdown on pickup trucks with commercial plates.”
In addition, DeFrancisco said the $300,000 over-height vehicle detection system that was recently installed and activated negated the need for any kind of commercial vehicle restriction. The system consists of a laser projector and receiver mounted on opposite sides of the Parkway, vehicle-presence detectors placed in each lane of the roadbed and two dynamic electronic message signs. If a vehicle that is more than 11 feet high interrupts the laser beams while passing over the pavement detectors, the roadside dynamic message signs will flash a message to the driver to stop before the bridge, and a buzzer also sounds. The system will also automatically send a message to NYSDOT’s Traffic Management Center, which will then notify Onondaga County’s 911 Center so that law enforcement can be dispatched to assist the driver in turning the vehicle around.
“Now we have this fancy gadget over the highway that makes [the ban] even more unnecessary,” DeFrancisco said. “It’s even more of a reason not to inconvenience people. It’s clearly better than the ban. It’s another layer of protection so you can’t just pass through without notice.”
In the end, DeFrancisco said it wasn’t fair to penalize all drivers for the mistake of one.
“It’s government intrusion that’s unnecessary,” Defrancisco said. “Do we eliminate all vehicles because one person is idiotic or negligent? The purpose of government is to correct problems to keep people safe. This inconveniences people, and it isn’t going to keep people any safer.”
The ban is expected to go into effect before the end of the year. Reynolds said the signage should be installed within the next couple of months.
As for Nels, he isn’t giving up.
“I’m trying to coin the phrase ‘Occupy the Parkway’ for a rally,” he said. “I’d love to see people come together, some given day, on the Parkway to show Albany that the people in the Syracuse area are fed up with politics as usual.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.