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Published: Friday, 8/15/2003

Area gridlock reaches aisles of Toledo Express


Tom Kidwell is used to traffic jams on Cherry Street approaching the Martin Luther King, Jr., Bridge, but yesterday's was different.

“It's like this every night, but now everybody's leaving at the same time,” Mr. Kidwell said as his car simmered in traffic approaching the busy Summit Street intersection.

The late-afternoon beginning to the power outage offered a prime recipe for gridlock, with nearly all intersections left for drivers to negotiate themselves.

Gridlock extended to the aisles of Toledo Express Airport, turned into a de-facto Northwest Airlines hub for the evening as eight planes destined for Detroit were sent there and their passengers sent by bus to Detroit.

The outage initially left most of the immediate Toledo area bereft of traffic lights, with motorists having to treat intersections like four-way stop signs and forcing drivers to inch out at times to try to assert their right-of-way. Police directed motorists at a few key locations, such as Summit and Cherry.

While there were a few horn-honking and swear-shouting incidents, most motorists were well-behaved.

The going was slow - Susan Vargo estimated it took her 15 minutes to drive two blocks on Michigan Street - but within about 90 minutes of the outage, the downtown streets had generally emptied, and without any significant downtown collisions.

James Gee, the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority's general manager, said that along with bus delays caused by heavy traffic, the power outage caused a computer glitch that disabled the bus service's radio system.

As the downtown emptied, Toledo Express' runways filled. The outage at Detroit Metropolitan-Wayne County Airport allowed only a trickle of flights to get in or out, Metro spokesman Barb Hogan said, in large part because the computerized security screening devices wouldn't work without power.

That led that airport's main airline, Northwest, to send six DC-9s and two 50-seat commuter jets to Toledo Express, which still had power.

Employees of all the Toledo-based airlines helped guide and park the planes, which landed from 4:30 to 5 p.m. About 600 to 700 passengers then flooded the terminal, mixing with the 250 people who had planned to come and go from Toledo.

Northwest employees scrambled to arrange for vans, buses, even passenger cars to take travelers to Detroit, where passengers were told their luggage would be sent - eventually.

The predicament, coupled with hour-long waits in line, led to frustration among many passengers, such as Verna Greaser. The Washington-area woman was flying from Washington to Iowa. She said she felt obligated to go to Detroit to follow her luggage, even though she didn't know what Northwest would do with her when she got there.

“Who wants to spend the night at an airport? Not me,” she said.

By 10, only a few dozen Detroit-bound fliers had not left for Detroit. It was unclear what would happen to them from there. Ms. Hogan said she had no idea when Metro might resume normal operations.

“We have folks running around here with flashlights and battery-operated radios, trying to stay in touch with the outside world,” she said shortly after 7 p.m. “We're telling people here to go home if they can because there are a lot of traffic problems out there and it will be safer while it's daylight.”

While Amtrak trains, which generally operate across northern Ohio at night, were not affected immediately, they faced the prospect of long delays waiting for freight trains held up by the outage to get out of their way. Railroads rely heavily on electricity for communications, signals, and control of track switches.

Dan Murphy, a spokesman for CSX Transportation, said the blackout had knocked out its systems in the Toledo area and at scattered locations throughout its northeastern and midwestern network.

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