Newsday, July 11, 2009, "Nightmare commute"


Fire investigators are probing what sparked a blaze beneath the deck of the Throgs Neck Bridge that burned for 10 hours Friday among timbers, plastic gutter rings and paint chemicals, forcing the bridge’s closure and causing one of the longest and most wide-ranging traffic jams in recent memory.

By Friday evening, the bridge — a vital connection between Queens and the Bronx, used especially by truck traffic headed to New England — was functioning almost completely. About 112,000 vehicles cross the bridge daily.

But there was one big exception: Vehicles with commercial plates are banned from all the bridge’s Bronx-bound lanes until further notice.

The Queens-bound lanes of the Throgs Neck Bridge reopened at 1 p.m. Two of the three Bronx-bound lanes were reopened at 6:15 p.m., only to noncommercial traffic. The rightmost of the Bronx-bound lanes will remain closed until future notice.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials also closed the Cross Island Parkway ramp to the bridge throughout the weekend — and possibly for longer.

“Our first goal: mitigate the traffic impacts,” Helena Williams, interim executive director of the MTA, said at an afternoon news conference in Fort Totten Park, in Bay Terrace near the base of the 48-year-old bridge. “Our second goal is to assess the damage to the bridge and develop a repair plan.”

Drivers of vehicles with commercial plates should take the Bronx Whitestone Bridge instead, officials said. Any commercial traffic on the Clearview Expressway, or I-295, which connects to the Throgs Neck Bridge, will be diverted from the expressway.

Trucking companies were being informed of the closure of the northbound lanes to commercial traffic.

The Throgs Neck Bridge’s closure at 6:30 a.m., during the morning rush hour, meant an all-day traffic nightmare for city motorists. It had a huge ripple effect, bringing traffic to a standstill on the city’s busiest highways — including the Cross-Bronx Expressway and Grand Central Parkway — and adding hours to motorists’ commutes.

Delays on the Cross Island Parkway caused snarls as far south as the Long Island Expressway. Traffic on the Cross-Bronx Expressway was backed up its full length, all the way west to the George Washington Bridge.

“It has been a nightmare,” said Juan Francisco, 32, of Manhattan, who installs MRI machines from Bay Shore to Manhattan and was stuck on the Grand Central. “I was in traffic for three hours this morning and there will probably be three more.”

FDNY officials said the fire broke out about 5 a.m. in scaffolding and construction materials beneath the bridge on the Queens end. By 6 a.m., a third alarm was declared, which meant 30 pieces of equipment and nearly 140 firefighters were on the scene, FDNY spokesman Steven Ritea said.

At first, officials closed some lanes of the Throgs Neck, but the state Department of Transportation said the entire bridge was closed by 6:30 a.m. The fire was under control at 3:03 p.m. Construction material and “timbers” still smoldered after firefighters extinguished the main fire.