By Eric Heyl, December 14, 2013
Held hostage by PennDOT?
Sounds preposterous. The state Transportation Department deals in road construction, not sudden abduction.
But what happened to more than 20 motorists on Thursday usually occurs only to tourists who make the ill-advised decision to venture off Mexico's main highways. Their journeys were abruptly interrupted not by banditos, but by PennDOT workers who greatly overstepped the authority they didn't possess to begin with.
The drivers were traveling through the Fort Pitt Tunnels when their vehicles were commandeered by a PennDOT truck and herded into a maintenance area immediately outside the tunnel. They were told they were forbidden to leave.
“We were all just taken aback by what was going on,” Carissa Mendez, 26, of Aliquippa told WPXI-TV. “There was no law enforcement there, and we were all held in this area. We were blocked in on each side by PennDOT trucks.”
The PennDOT workers accused their prisoners of running a light at the tunnel entrance that had turned red to halt traffic and enable them to remove ice accumulations inside the tunnels.
That the motorists insisted the light had switched from red to green did not appease their captors. The motorists were told they were being detained until the state police arrived to issue them citations.
The hostages spent about an hour in captivity, even though PennDOT has no authority to confine anyone, regardless of their alleged disregard of the motor vehicle code. That power rests with the police, not some guys in trucks knocking down icicles with shovels.
PennDOT spokesman Steve Cowan acknowledged that fact on Friday, saying the employees' actions “went against our policy. We are not to detain any motorists.”
Cowan said PennDOT is continuing to investigate what caused the traffic signal at the tunnel entrance to apparently malfunction.
“Whether it was a system failure or a human error, we're not certain at this point, But we want to get to the bottom of this,” he said.
Cowan wouldn't reveal whether the workers had been disciplined, saying he can't discuss a personnel matter.