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U.S. Infrastructure Priorities Tested After Highway Collapse

A portion of Interstate 95 collapsed in Philadelphia after a gasoline tanker caught fire. Officials have promised a rapid response that “cuts through the red tape.”

A view of the collapsed portion of I-95 near the Cottman Avenue exit in Philadelphia on Sunday, June 11, 2023.
(David Maialetti/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
In Brief:
  • Part of Interstate 95 is closed after the highway collapsed in a fire over the weekend. Officials have promised a rapid rebuild.

  • Predictions of traffic disasters in the wake of other highway closures haven’t come to pass.

  • Some local officials are pushing for new transit infrastructure in the area of the collapse.

  • Cutting an unimpeded path nearly 2,000 miles from Maine to Florida, Interstate 95 is one of the biggest achievements of the federal interstate highway program. It’s the main transportation artery of the East Coast, connecting about 40 percent of the country’s population and economy on just a tenth of its land. Construction of the highway began in the 1950s under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and wasn’t officially complete until 2018. For a piece of infrastructure that’s always in every state of repair, though, the concept of “complete” doesn’t really apply.

    Last weekend, in Northeast Philadelphia, a portion of the interstate collapsed after a gasoline tanker crashed and caught fire under an overpass. The driver, who reportedly lost control of the truck on an off-ramp, apparently died in the blaze. In the immediate aftermath, state and local officials, including Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) General Manager Leslie Richards, held a press conference vowing to pull out all the stops to help travelers find alternate routes to their destinations and to fix the broken section of road as quickly as possible. Even still, Shapiro said, “With regards to the complete rebuild of the I-95 roadway, we expect that to take some number of months.”

    Experts and elected leaders have acknowledged for years that many roads, bridges and other pieces of transportation infrastructure are in poor condition. But by all accounts, the collapsed section of I-95 was not one of them; there’s simply only so much heat that any piece of roadway can withstand. And while rebuilding a heavily trafficked interstate highway is a complicated and expensive proposition, there’s no reason to believe it won’t be done fast.

    “It’s the kind of thing where the money materializes,” says Erick Guerra, associate professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania. “In general, that’s just how we deal with disasters. We may not find money to shore up a levee, but after the levee breaks, we do our best to fix it immediately.”

    An Urgent Rebuild

    At the press conference, Shapiro said he was planning to declare a disaster emergency to allow the state to have immediate access to federal funds and to “cut through the red tape” on the way to rebuilding the road, which he did the following morning. In addition to local officials, Shapiro also said he’d been coordinating with the governors of New Jersey and Delaware. U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was scheduled to visit Philadelphia on Tuesday.
    Debris is seen at the collapsed portion of I-95 near Cottman Avenue in Philadelphia on Sunday, June 11, 2023. I-95 remains closed in both directions in northeast Philadelphia.
    (Monica Herndon/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
    Philadelphians are seemingly always dealing with repairs to the interstate. But fortunately for highway users, the Northeast Corridor has lots of alternate roadways for getting around the region. It’s too soon to know exactly how traffic will respond to the long-term closure of that section of highway. But the impacts are likely to be more localized than regional; as of Tuesday morning, the estimated drive time to New York City from South Philadelphia was still under two hours, even without access to the primary route. And Philadelphia is relatively transit-rich, too. SEPTA is offering additional trains on some lines to help people navigate around the closure, and says it still has existing capacity on others as ridership dropped during the pandemic.

    The disaster may be more contained than residents and officials initially predicted. But the rebuild will still get the disaster treatment. And it may mark a sharp contrast with the typical process of building non-highway infrastructure, like bike lanes and new transit lines, where it’s often red tape, neighborhood meetings and inflated costs as far as the eye can see.

    “We’re going to watch this piece of infrastructure be rebuilt in record time — as it should be — versus the people on the Gulf Coast who have been waiting since 2005 for passenger rail to be restarted after Hurricane Katrina,” says Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America. “It really does show that when people point to hurdles and problems, what they mean is, ‘That looks hard and I don’t want to,’ versus, ‘This is important and I want to make it happen.’”

    How Traffic Responds

    Other highway closures have had interesting short- and long-term impacts for city dwellers and transportation researchers. The Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, an elevated highway along the waterfront like I-95 in some parts of Philadelphia, was torn down after an earthquake in 1989, to the delight of some who’d been calling for the roadway to be removed for decades. While some people have long pushed for parts of I-95 to be capped, buried or removed, that won’t be the story of the recently collapsed section of the interstate.

    A closer parallel occurred in 2017 on Interstate 85 in Atlanta, when a portion of the highway collapsed after a fire. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse, MARTA, the city’s public transit authority, saw a 20-25 percent increase in ridership, according to Stephany Fisher, an agency spokesperson. The agency also inaugurated partnerships with Uber and Lyft to help get people to and from its stations, and those partnerships have continued, Fisher said. But MARTA’s ridership gains evaporated as soon as the highway was rebuilt.
    Reconstructing a timeline of events in Atlanta
    Crews demolish a damaged section of I-85 bridge in Atlanta on Saturday, April 1, 2017. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse, MARTA, the city’s public transit authority, saw a 20-25 percent increase in ridership.
    (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
    “The highway was repaired quickly, and since people were only temporarily inconvenienced, many ended up returning to their cars,” Fisher said.

    When the Interstate 405 in Los Angeles was shut down for two weekends in 2011, local officials predicted “Carmageddon.” Their warnings were either way off or worked too well, because the anticipated congestion never really materialized. It’s often the case that highway shutdowns create less traffic chaos than many anticipate, partly because drivers are smart enough to cancel trips, reschedule them or find other modes of transportation.

    “The traffic impacts are almost universally far less substantial than people guess they will be,” Guerra says.

    A Vision of Alternatives

    While the collapse cuts off a portion of an important throughway for the northeastern U.S., most people expect the traffic impacts will be worst at the local level. Some of that traffic may be diverted to nearby Roosevelt Boulevard, an already dangerous arterial road. For the last several months, a group of transit advocates has been working to revive a decades-old plan to build a subway along Roosevelt Boulevard, and after the I-95 collapse, that project seemed to take on new relevance.

    The subway would serve parts of Northeast Philadelphia that are likeliest to be hit by additional traffic being routed around I-95. SEPTA runs a regional rail line to Trenton, which could be an option for some drivers hoping to avoid the interstate, but the trains typically only run every hour.

    “If we had infrastructure like [the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway] in place, we would be able to run trains every five to six minutes and it would be able to cushion the blow of this,” says Jay Arzu, a Ph.D. student in city planning at the University of Pennsylvania who has championed the subway project.

    More local officials are lining up behind the subway project as well. On Wednesday, Philadelphia City Councilmember Mike Driscoll was expected to introduce a resolution calling for hearings on the subway project. The text of the resolution cites the weekend collapse of part of I-95, “sending thousands into a panic with limited viable alternative transit options to get from the Northeast to Center City.”

    Still, compared to people in other regions, Philadelphians have a lot of mobility options. The case for new rapid transit in the city like the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway may be strong, says Guerra, the planning professor at Penn. But the I-95 closure doesn’t make the case much stronger. Because the interstate will be back before we know it.

    “That project should not live or die based on whether I-95 collapses,” Guerra says.
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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