Sunday, July 15, 2018

PA Turnpike and Interstate 95 Are About to Be Connected

Car and sign courtesy of iStockphoto; Eisenhower courtesy of James Burke/The LIFE Picture Collection
/Getty Images. Illustration by Gluekit

After nearly 50 years, it's the dawn of a new era for two of Pennsylvania's busiest roads — and the end of a very
different one.

Don Steinberg reports for Philadelphia Magazine:

On June 29, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill allocating $25 billion in federal funds to build 41,000 miles of highways across America. Ike was in the hospital for stomach pain when he launched what we now call the Interstate Highway System.

Sinclair Weeks, Secretary of Commerce at the time, called it “the greatest public works program in the history of the world.” Author Phil Patton wrote in 1986 that the plan, which Congress approved with bipartisan support, was “the last program of the New Deal and the first space program.” Dan McNichol, who wrote a history of the interstate system and was a White House transportation adviser to George H.W. Bush, told me, “It is probably the single greatest physical model of American democracy.”

This fall, the original vision of Eisenhower’s grand interstate highway system will officially be finished, near a massage parlor and a cannabis dispensary in Bristol.

One day recently, standing atop one of the twin gigantic elevated arcs that will finally make I-95 continuous from Florida to Maine, on virgin concrete roadway not yet open to the public, Patrick Kelly took in the vista. Kelly is a project manager at Jacobs Engineering, the design management firm for the massive undertaking. It was his first time actually walking on the new highway connection.

“This has been 90 percent of my job for 13 years,” he said. “I’ve done 40 other projects, and you’re driving with your kids and you say, ‘Dad designed this road.’ But this is just — what a beast.”

Nearby, Mike Phillips, the project manager from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, who tends to thousands of daily details on the job, seemed concerned that the new noise-reduction walls along the roadway and the concrete supports under it, called piers, were presenting an irresistible canvas to local graffiti taggers.

“We have a guy down here, his tag name is Super Fresh Outlaw,” Phillips explained, with a mix of exasperation and admiration. “I’m trying to find him through social media. I don’t even want to arrest him. I want to give him a job, so he stops painting our stuff.”

There are a lot of reasons why this $420 million highway project is a milestone — some of them practical, some historic, and some, if we can wax poetic, kind of symbolic. For starters, two of the Commonwealth’s busiest highways, the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate 95, will be directly connected for the first time ever, after close to 50 years of crossing without touching.

The new connection also remedies another 50-year-old whoops. It makes I-95 unbroken — and, more importantly for this region, directly connects Philadelphia to New York. This hasn’t been the case before. For decades, I-95 has had a miles-long gap in central Jersey, bewildering motorists.

Your mileage may vary, but the new link could improve your commuting, your sightseeing, your interstate commerce. Amazon’s 600,000-square-foot warehouse, just over the river in Florence Township, New Jersey, will be easily accessible from 95. An economic impact study released in 2000 (this project has been cooking for a while) suggested that by improving connections to regional markets, cutting travel costs, and enhancing “office-market” attractiveness, Bucks County could get a $400 million boost in business sales and 3,000 new jobs by 2025. That’s not even factoring in the potential for graft, kickbacks and patronage.

Meanwhile, as the interstate-building era at least technically ends (by virtue of how long it’s taken, finishing off I-95 is the last eligible project to use federal Interstate Completion Funds), it’s an opportunity to pull over for a moment and contemplate this road we’ve been on.

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