Weissport mayor gives red light to ambulance
BOB FORD/TIMES NEWS The lane on Lehigh River Bridge going into Weissport was designed to hasten response time for emergency vehicles, says PennDOT.
Members of emergency crews face a tough choice in Lehighton these days.
They can sit in traffic waiting to go over the Thomas J. McCall Memorial Bridge during construction, or they can use the emergency access lane in Weissport.
The designated lane is located on the downriver side of the Weissport bridge for emergency access and is closed to regular traffic.
On July 17, the Lehighton Ambulance made the right choice for the patient but the wrong choice for Weissport Mayor Jonathan Troutman.
Troutman said at a council meeting this week that he was incensed when he saw a Franklin Township police officer escort an ambulance through Weissport using the emergency lane.
"That emergency lane was put in so there would be access to Weissport during emergencies and was not set up as a shortcut," Troutman said.
Not so, says the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
"The emergency lane is for all emergency services; therefore any emergency equipment may use it while responding to an emergency call," PennDOT district press officer Ronald J. Young Jr. said this week.
Troutman said that he has spoken to Franklin Township Police Chief Thomas Beltz, who told Troutman that it would not happen again.
Lehighton Ambulance Association administrative coordinator Joni Gestl said, "It was truly a life threatening emergency that our unit went through Weissport with police assistance from Franklin Township."
They were responding to an emergency at Beltzville State Park and the patient was ultimately flown to a trauma center.
Because "the traffic backlog makes our ambulance 'sit' on the bridge at the normal flow of traffic," Gestl said, "we felt at the time of this particular call, it was in the best interest of the patient to 'safely' get through Weissport."
Won't happen again
"We cannot condone this type of behavior," Troutman said this week.
"The officer and the ambulance accessed the emergency lane and then went down Franklin and Park streets to White Street, where they went against one-way traffic on Bridge Street before crossing the railroad tracks. This is reckless behavior for anyone. There is a blind spot, and it is just not worth it."
Troutman said he realized that the ambulance was responding to a serious incident at Beltzville.
"We not only have residents here in Weissport who could have gotten hurt or killed, but there are plenty of tourists in the area," Troutman said.
"I cannot stand by and see several people killed in a head-on crash because they want to save time by going through Weissport."
Troutman said Beltz has said that he would notify his officers and "promised there would not be a repeat situation."
So, Gestl said Lehighton Ambulance will wait at the bridge, "like everyone else."
PennDOT created the 12-foot wide access lane at the request of Weissport officials.
The problem lies with the design of the lane.
"By the lane assignment, and as it ends as you come across the bridge into Weissport, it made it quite obvious it was to benefit the residents of Weissport alone," Gestl said.
"If the lane would have extended over the tracks, we probably could have used it routinely and safely," she said, adding that although the corps has to cross over the river several times a day, they have only used the emergency lane twice, to the best of her knowledge, and both times with the assistance of a police escort.
"It was not determined to be 'safe' to go across without a police officer," Gestl said. "Our emergency calls have taken longer as a result."
Gestl said the situation is difficult.
"We have been told that there is nothing PennDOT can do for us," she said.
"We have asked PennDOT for help in getting us across the bridge for emergencies, but we have gotten no special help to get across."
Traffic patterns are expected to return to normal in September when deck work is finished on the McCall bridge.
Correspondent Gail Maholick contributed to this report.