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 firstname.lastname@example.org