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‘Trafficgeddon’ brings Jim Thorpe to a standstill

Jim Thorpe’s picturesque streets were brought to a standstill Saturday as record-breaking crowds flocked to the final weekend of the town’s annual Fall Foliage Festival.

Borough Police Chief Joe Schatz said the situation became dire enough by 8 or 9 a.m. that local authorities had to take extraordinary measures to manage the unprecedented traffic.

Borough officials made an announcement on Facebook early in the afternoon, revealing that all available police officers were deployed to handle the traffic gridlock.

Schatz characterized this year’s festival as the worst traffic-wise in his 27-year career with the department.

“We had to come up with a plan so we could ensure that if we had to get any emergency vehicles in and around the borough, we could,” Schatz said. “Our intentions were, if we had to, to turn nonresidents away until we could get traffic flowing again. We advised our officers to do the best they could creating intervals at Routes 209 and 903 between keeping moving vehicles through and allowing pedestrians to cross. Finally, I would say around 6 p.m. or so, we could see that the traffic was flowing again.”

Parking became a significant problem early as visitors jockeyed for a spot not long after the sun came up. Carbon County Commissioner Chris Lukasevich said the county lot was closed at 9:30 a.m. Mauch Chunk Lake lots reached their 100-vehicle capacity rapidly, and Sam Miller Field, usually an overflow parking option, was unavailable due to a trunk or treat event.

“We witnessed the proverbial tipping point on Saturday with ‘trafficgeddon’, the point at which no one can reasonably say that, even with seemingly our best efforts put forth to plan and execute, there was a collective failure to ensure quality of life aspects for residents to include protecting their health and welfare, for them and visitors, specific to ensuring the capacity to deploy emergency services in an expedient manner should it have been necessary,” Lukasevich said. “Additionally, the downtown area of Jim Thorpe, which includes the Old Mauch Chunk Historical District, has reached a point of diminishing visitor experience given the inability to reasonably and fully meet the restroom, restaurant, pedestrian flow, activities, and open space needs of visitors during Fall Foliage.”

Commissioner Chairman Wayne Nothstein called Saturday “the perfect storm.”

“Leaves were at their peak and we had beautiful weather with rain coming Sunday,” he said. “There was the Halloween parade on the east side of Jim Thorpe. To top that off we had the witches’ walk and street closure of First Street in Lehighton. That event was well attended with many vendors.”

The Jim Thorpe Trolley Company, a major attraction during the festival, found itself dealing with serious delays. The business posted on social media that trolleys were running more than an hour behind schedule due to the massive influx of festivalgoers. Despite the inconveniences, the post read, the majority of visitors remained understanding and patient.

At the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway booth, the ticket line extended down the sidewalk, across train tracks, and into the county parking lot to the north. The situation was similar to the south, with lines stretching behind the Hooven building.

Local businesses also felt the impact of the traffic turmoil. Tommy’s Subs on West Fourth Street urged customers to keep the traffic delays in mind when ordering food.

“We have had several customers call back and cancel their orders because they couldn’t get through,” the business posted on social media.

Despite the mayhem, Schatz mentioned that most incidents were traffic-related, with only a few isolated confrontations between residents and tourists.

“We had some calls with residents telling tourists that you can’t go down a street and we had one incident where somebody spit in the face of a resident,” he said. “There were a few vehicles struck on Center Avenue.”

Schatz emphasized the necessity of a comprehensive solution and expressed his intent to convene a roundtable discussion in 2024 involving all pertinent agencies to prevent a repeat of this crisis in the future.

“We’re going to have to sit down with everyone involved including residents, the ambulance, the fire, the borough, the county, the railroad, the Jim Thorpe Tourism Agency and Pocono Mountain Visitors Bureau and say, listen, what are we going to do to ensure this does not happen again,” he said. “We have to come up with a solution because it’s very dangerous and I’ll be the first one to admit it’s dangerous.”

Lukasevich said when those discussions happen, there will be a few items that won’t answer the problem.

“First is more parking,” he said. “We would have to bulldoze half the town to meet the demand and Jim Thorpe is maxed out. The tourism infrastructure has reached capacity. And secondly, the reopening of the county’s corral, the slip lane into the county lot, is not the panacea for traffic flow through downtown Jim Thorpe.”

Amy Miller contributed to this report.

Traffic on the Mansion House Hill, Route 209, coming into Jim Thorpe, was already backed up at 9 a.m. when this photo was taken. JAMES LOGUE JR./SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
Traffic along North Street/Route 903 in Jim Thorpe was backed up from the bridge almost back to 8th Street on the east side of Jim Thorpe.