Wednesday was an easy enough day, in what unfortunately turned out to be an apres moi, le deluge sense. My morning trip to Danbury was about 1:45, and the return 2:20. There were still some slowdowns in the morning, caused by the rough pavement on the Long Island Expressway near the Queens line, but if they delayed me at all it wasn’t by more than a couple of minutes. Coming home, there were the usual slowdowns in the usual places, but nothing bad at all. Working in Danbury was actually looking pretty easy.
As I was driving in on Thursday morning, the traffic reports on WCBS-AM were saying that the eastbound lanes (in other words, the direction opposite to mine) on the Expressway were closed due to a crash in western Nassau County, and that the left lane in the westbound direction was occupied by emergency equipment. Losing a lane would certainly mean that traffic in my direction would be very slow. My thoughts were confirmed moments later when an electronic sign gave a 49-minute estimated travel time to the Cross Island, at least three times greater than normal. I got on the Northern State Parkway, which was moving just fine, and made it to Danbury without any delays.
By the time I left in the afternoon I had long since forgotten about the morning’s road closure. A rather rude reminder came in the form of an electronic sign (one of the roadside ones usually found at construction sites) way up in northern Westchester County at the junction of I-684 and the Saw Mill Parkway, which cautioned that the eastbound Long Island Expressway was closed at Exit 32. It was very surprising to see the sign, as the vast majority of drivers passing it would be heading to destinations other than Long Island. Things obviously were very bad.
Listening to the traffic reports made it clear just how bad things really were. The Expressway indeed was closed at the Queens-Nassau line for an ongoing investigation of the morning’s crash, in which a police officer was squashed by a car when investigating a separate crash. Of course this lead to some grumbling on my part about how the police were making such a long and disruptive investigation only because it was one of their own involved. An ordinary person’s life wouldn’t be sufficiently important.
These considerations aside, it was immediately apparent that my trip home would be a very long one. Listening to the extended traffic reports on WINS-AM (WCBS had switched to the Yankees game, thanks for nothing) I soon found out that, among much else: the Throgs Neck and Whitestone bridges were completely jammed; the Cross Island Parkway and the Clearview Expressway was at a standstill; the Grand Central/Northern State Parkway was a very long, very narrow parking lot; and that even the Southern State Parkway, many miles away from the troubles, was completely stopped. Essentially, all the east-west highways and parkways through Queens were going nowhere fast, as they couldn’t even remotely begin to handle all the alternative volume with the Expressway shut.
I figured out that my best plan was to take the Triboro Bridge* into Queens, and then use major surface streets to go west into Nassau County, rejoining the Expressway around Exit 35 after the closure. What I figured is that traffic lights on the city’s major streets are timed in a way that you can make fairly quick progress, so long as traffic isn’t too heavy. One thing I really wished I had was a GPS, as even though I’ve driven through Queens countless times on the various expressways and parkways, I’m not particularly familiar with the surface streets. My phone has a GPS function that shows current traffic conditions, but obviously it’s not suitable for use while driving. I’d just have to rely on my memory and sense of direction.
The route I ended up following was: Hutchinson River Parkway –> Bruckner Expressway –> Triboro Bridge –> Northern Boulevard –> Utopia Parkway –> Horace Harding Expressway –> Francis Lewis Boulevard –> Hillside Avenue. Traffic was slow but moving on the Hutchinson, and was just fine on the Bruckner (a curious omission from the National Scenic Highways list), and getting over the Triboro was no particular trouble. It was now about 4:45. I was on Northern Boulevard for several miles, and for most of the way it was moving well, with the aforementioned light timing being a major help. Once I passed Flushing, and got closer to the Expressway follies, traffic got much worse. So much worse that I was rarely able to make it through a light in fewer than two cycles.
Staying on Northern Boulevard into Nassau clearly wasn’t going to be an option. I figured my best bet was to head south and pick up Hillside Avenue or Jericho Turnpike. By this time it was nearly 5:30, two and a half hours after I’d left Danbury, and traffic everywhere was getting worse as rush hour progressed. Francis Lewis Boulevard in particular was in very bad shape. By this time, according to traffic reports, the Long Island Expressway had reopened, but the damage had been done and traffic was at a complete standstill.
When I got onto Hillside Avenue it didn’t seem too bad, and I decided that it would be my eastbound route into Nassau County. If I ever got there, that is, as I kept driving farther and farther east but could tell by the numbered cross streets that I was still in Queens. What I had forgotten is that Queens bulges quite far east into Nassau in that particular area. Whatever elation I may have felt upon finally entering Nassau proved very short-lived, as traffic once again came to a halt. Covering just a couple of blocks took over 20 minutes, with multiple light cycles at each intersection. It was now 6:30. Three hours since Danbury, 1:45 since crossing the Triboro, one hour since turning off Northern Boulevard. Despite the lateness of the hour, I finally admitted defeat, and stopped at a nearby Panera. Using the Panera Bread Strategy hadn’t been in my plans, but sometimes one has to adapt on the fly.
I stayed at the Panera until 7:15. My asiago turkey sandwich was a huge disappointment, especially since Panera is usually so reliable. It had way too many onions and was so salty I thought I was at Bossy the Cow’s salt lick. On a much better note, when I left at 7:15 traffic on Hillside Avenue had cleared up completely. I rejoined the Expressway at New Hyde Park Road and there were no slowdowns at all. Still, it was about 7:50 when I finally made it home, an excruciating four hours and fifty minutes after I had left work. If anything, this horror show starkly illustrated just how fragile our transportation system really is. And it also shows that we urgently need a lot more telecommuting and staggered working hours!
* = I refuse to call it by its official moniker, the RFK Bridge. Robert Kennedy may have served as a Senator from New York, but except for renting a never-occupied apartment to serve as his official residence he had no ties to the state. He only ran for the Senate from New York because there was an open seat, that not being the case in his home state of Virginia. Also, the city didn’t bother renaming the bridge until Kennedy had been dead 40 years, which seems a rather belated action. But the big thing is that the name Triboro Bridge is uniquely descriptive. It should have been kept for that reason alone.