Northeast Times

$151 million per mile

A 1.4-mile sec­tion of In­ter­state 95 that curves to­ward the Delaware River will get a $212 mil­lion up­grade that in­cludes re­build­ing sev­en high­way bridges.

So you think that con­struc­tion nev­er ceases on traffic-jammed In­ter­state 95 in North­east Phil­adelphia?

Well get ready for some more. And it’s go­ing to be the biggest pro­ject yet.

On June 21, the Pennsylvania De­part­ment of Trans­port­a­tion an­nounced that work will soon be­gin on a $212.3 mil­lion up­grade of a 1.4-mile sec­tion of the high­way between Bleigh Av­en­ue and Levick Street, in­clud­ing the Cottman Av­en­ue in­ter­change and ad­join­ing city streets in Ta­cony.

Work will start in Au­gust and con­tin­ue through late sum­mer 2017. Walsh Con­struc­tion Com­pany II of Can­ons­burg, Pa., has been awar­ded the con­tract, which PennDOT iden­ti­fied as the most ex­pens­ive in the agency’s his­tory.

The price tag dwarfs the pre­vi­ous re­cord-hold­er, a $105.4 mil­lion up­grade of Route 202 in Chester County awar­ded in 2010.

PennDOT has already in­ves­ted $34 mil­lion in the Cottman Av­en­ue in­ter­change through an earli­er con­tract. That phase began in 2009 and is al­most com­plete. It primar­ily in­volved build­ing two new on-ramps and up­grad­ing ma­jor sur­face-level routes in­clud­ing Cottman and Prin­ceton av­en­ues and State Road.

The new con­tract is con­sidered the second and fi­nal phase. State tax dol­lars will cov­er 10 per­cent of the cost, while fed­er­al fund­ing will pay for the rest. The fed­er­al money will come from the U.S. High­way Trust Fund’s In­ter­state Main­ten­ance Pro­gram. Mo­tor­ists pay in­to that fund via fed­er­al gas and dies­el fuel taxes.

The in­vest­ment in I-95 is needed, PennDOT of­fi­cials say, to fix the high­way’s de­teri­or­at­ing bridges, to re­con­fig­ure traffic pat­terns to meet mod­ern stand­ards and to re­con­nect Ta­cony to its greatest nat­ur­al re­source, the Delaware River, a half-cen­tury after the ori­gin­al high­way en­gin­eers ef­fect­ively cut off the com­munity from the wa­ter­front.

“We are aware we have a very sig­ni­fic­ant prob­lem on this stretch of I-95,” said Chuck Dav­ies, PennDOT’s as­sist­ant Dis­trict 6 ex­ec­ut­ive for design.

“(This pro­ject) is something that does oc­cupy a large por­tion of our re­gion­al dol­lars over the next few years, so it does have a large pres­ence. … At (over) 200 mil­lion, this is a sig­ni­fic­ant per­cent­age of any­thing we do in any giv­en year.”

Over the last four years, Dis­trict 6 has av­er­aged about $450 mil­lion in an­nu­al con­struc­tion spend­ing, ac­cord­ing to Dav­ies. The dis­trict cov­ers the five-county Phil­adelphia re­gion.

The two phases of the Cottman Av­en­ue In­ter­change pro­ject, when com­bined, will have cost $246 mil­lion. They are part of PennDOT’s lar­ger longterm ef­fort to re­fur­bish I-95 throughout Bucks, Phil­adelphia and Delaware Counties. 

“On I-95, we have cur­rently in design pro­jects that are go­ing to cost two bil­lion dol­lars,” Dav­ies said.

On av­er­age, I-95 handles about 128,000 vehicles a day in the area of the Cottman Av­en­ue In­ter­change. The new con­struc­tion will not sig­ni­fic­antly in­crease traffic ca­pa­city, Dav­ies said.

Eight bridges are in­volved in the con­struc­tion. The bridges carry the high­way over ground-level streets. Gov­ern­ment in­spect­ors have rated sev­en of them as “struc­tur­ally de­fi­cient,” said Gene Blaum, a PennDOT spokes­man.

“(Each has) at least one struc­tur­al as­pect that’s in de­teri­or­ated con­di­tion,” Blaum said.

Mainly, de­teri­or­a­tion in­cludes cracked con­crete abut­ments and beams, along with rus­ted met­al sup­ports. The bridges need “ma­jor re­hab­il­it­a­tion,” but are still con­sidered safe to use, Dav­ies said. All sev­en will be com­pletely re­built.

“There has been tem­por­ary main­ten­ance to make sure the crack­ing and rust doesn’t get real far,” Dav­ies said.

The bridges were ori­gin­ally con­struc­ted between 1964 and ’66. Now they are among al­most 500 struc­tur­ally de­fi­cient high­way bridges in Dis­trict 6 and about 5,000 statewide.

In Ju­ly 2007, there were 604 such bridges in the dis­trict. That was the all-time high, Blaum said. As of March, PennDOT had re­duced that num­ber to 494.

Statewide, Pennsylvania still has the most struc­tur­ally de­fi­cient bridges in the na­tion. Sev­er­al years ago, PennDOT coun­ted more than 6,000, Blaum said.

The eighth bridge in the I-95 spans New State Road in the north­ern end of the pro­ject area and will be widened, as will sev­er­al short sec­tions of the high­way, thereby elim­in­at­ing the once-com­mon­place but now de­rided “drop-off” lane con­fig­ur­a­tion. 

I-95 was ori­gin­ally de­signed as a six-lane high­way — three in each dir­ec­tion. However, en­gin­eers de­cided to in­clude ad­di­tion­al ac­cel­er­a­tion and slow-down lanes ad­ja­cent to exit and en­trance ramps.

In North­east Philly, however, the ramps are so close to­geth­er that most of the high­way has four lanes in each dir­ec­tion. Prob­lem is, many mo­tor­ists find them­selves stuck in the exit-only “drop-off” lane when they want to stay on the high­way.

“Every time you lost a lane, you would get con­ges­tion,” said Paul Shultes, PennDOT’s Cottman Av­en­ue pro­ject man­ager.

“Then they all have to (merge) over,” Dav­ies said.

The con­fig­ur­a­tion may have made sense in the 1960s, but nobody en­vi­sioned today’s traffic volume back then.

“There are far more cars on this road than was ever ima­gined,” Shultes said.

Mean­while, there’s a lot more in­terest among the loc­al pop­u­la­tion in im­prov­ing ac­cess to the Delaware River and in­cor­por­at­ing it in­to a com­munity re­viv­al.

Since its de­vel­op­ment, the in­ter­state has been like a great wall sep­ar­at­ing homes and re­tail busi­nesses from the in­dus­tri­al wa­ter­front. Traffic en­gin­eers re­con­figured Cottman and Prin­ceton Av­en­ues as one-way streets car­ry­ing vehicles to and from the high­way.

In the earli­er $34 mil­lion pro­ject phase, con­tract­ors widened Cottman and made it two-way. They also elim­in­ated an on-ramp at Prin­ceton, made it two-way and re­designed it as more of a neigh­bor­hood street with side­walk im­prove­ments and bi­cycle lanes.

In the next phase, Prin­ceton will be ex­ten­ded east­ward bey­ond State Road to Mil­nor Street and the Quaker City Yacht Club. The new high­way un­der­passes on Prin­ceton and oth­er east-west streets will have bet­ter light­ing and be ac­cess­ible for ped­es­tri­ans and bi­cyc­lists.

“The whole think­ing about in­ter­state high­ways in urb­an re­gions was dif­fer­ent (in the ’60s). Our design re­flects what people in the com­munity are think­ing about how they want their com­munity to de­vel­op,” Dav­ies said. “That wasn’t ne­ces­sar­ily part of the pro­cess in the Fifties or Six­ties.”

The $212.3 mil­lion will also cov­er in­stall­a­tion of ad­di­tion­al cam­er­as, traffic mon­it­ors and elec­tron­ic mes­sage boards that will be­come part of the high­way’s In­tel­li­gent Trans­port­a­tion Sys­tem. PennDOT of­fers live video feeds of the high­way at www.dot.state.pa.us

Mo­tor­ists should ex­pect traffic delays at times throughout the con­struc­tion pro­cess. And the exit ramp from south­bound I-95 onto Bleigh Av­en­ue will be closed for about a year mid­way through the phase in about 2015.

“We will al­ways main­tain three lanes in each dir­ec­tion, so we don’t ex­pect it will make a sig­ni­fic­ant im­pact,” Shultes said. ••

Re­port­er Wil­li­am Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or wkenny@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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