Anybody who has been ensnared in traffic after a big event at the city’s sports complex knows that access to the Schuylkill Expressway in South Philadelphia is scarce.
Five ramps take motorists east to New Jersey. But there is just one on-ramp, only for northbound traffic on Broad Street, that grudgingly allows vehicles to enter onto I-76 toward Valley Forge. That ramp is so sharply curved that it has a posted 10-mph speed limit.
Neighbors near the sports complex thought they hit the jackpot in 2014 when competitors for the city’s second casino license promised to build a new westbound I-76 on-ramp on Seventh Street. The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board awarded the license to Stadium Casino LLC with the "express special condition” that the company “pay all costs and expenses associated with the design and construction” of a Seventh Street entrance ramp.
“They have to put the ramp in — it’s a condition of the license,” said Ivan Cohen, a director of the Sports Complex Special Services District, the nonprofit group that manages community benefits from the professional sports teams, as well as from the casino.
Not so fast. It turns out that getting a private enterprise to build a public highway project is more challenging than anticipated. Now Stadium Casino LLC — which finally broke ground this year on its $700 million Live! Philadelphia Casino and Hotel at 900 Packer Ave. — wants to get out of its promise.
Stadium Casino says that the on-ramp idea is unfeasible, and that various government agencies with a stake in I-76 are unable to reach a consensus. It has asked the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to release it from an obligation it made during the fevered 2014 licensing process, when competing casino operators were promising the moon, the stars, and public works to win approval for the city’s coveted second gaming license.
Aside from jurisdictional complications about the on-ramp — that stretch of I-76 is owned by the Delaware River Port Authority, which has no interest in helping nontolling vehicles to travel away from the Walt Whitman Bridge — a lawyer representing the casino suggested at a hearing last month that the project had feeble support among several community groups, and the on-ramp was largely the brainchild of one resident who no longer lived in the area.
“Of the four community groups, we can only identify one, and one woman who now lives in New Jersey, that said this is a good idea,” Richard W. Hayden, a lawyer for Stadium Casino, told the gaming board at a July 10 hearing. Stadium Casino is owned by the Cordish Group, a Maryland real estate and entertainment company.
Despite Hayden’s representations, the on-ramp still seems to have significant support among several stakeholders in South Philadelphia, especially the Sports Complex Special Services District, which touts the casino on-ramp agreement as a significant accomplishment. The special services district has representatives of 30 entities on its board, including elected officials, owners of the professional sports teams, several city agencies, and four elected directors from neighborhoods around the stadium complex, one of whom is Cohen.
“The strong consensus of that group is that this ramp would be a great help to this area," said Shawn Jalosinski, the executive director of the special services district. He said that community surveys of the district’s 4,100 households have consistently shown that traffic congestion is the top concern.
Community representatives say they do not want to alienate Stadium Casino because the gaming operator plans to channel $15 million in community benefits over the next decade through several local organizations.
One of the strongest on-ramp advocates is Judy Cerrone, a former director of the special services district who testified at the casino’s 2014 licensing proceeding. She has lived in the tidy enclave of about 200 houses at the southeast corner of Broad and Packer for 63 years — and says she has no plans to move to New Jersey.
“We didn’t want the casino, but everybody wants the ramp, especially the people who live closest to Packer Avenue," she said. "It’s a nightmare — you can’t get in or out at all when there’s a game or a concert.”
The gaming board’s formal 174-page order awarding the license to Stadium Casino in 2014 noted that neighborhood opposition “was primarily centered on traffic and parking and related issues on game days,” but that the casino’s commitment to fund an on-ramp “will assist in alleviating congestion.”
Five years later, the unresolved on-ramp issue has hung up what should be a routine relicensing process for Stadium Casino — as though anything connected to the tortured history of the city’s second casino could be considered routine.
The second Philadelphia casino license was issued in 2006 to the Foxwoods group, and then revoked in 2010. The state conducted another protracted competition, resulting in the award to Stadium Casino in 2014. The project was stalled by a legal challenge from rival SugarHouse Casino before Stadium Casino finally prevailed in 2017.
Construction began this year on the project two blocks north of Citizens Bank Park, and Stadium Casino says its design plans are more lavish than initially planned — a complex originally budgeted for $400 million project has evolved into a $700 million job, including a brand new 200-room hotel. It is scheduled to open at the end of 2020.
The notion that a privately owned casino could pay for a public highway project emerged in 2013, when competing casino operators were vying for the gaming license. Penn National Gaming, which later dropped out of the competition, was the first to promise to build the ramp. Others, including Stadium Casino, were pressed to match Penn National’s offer.
“It became somewhat of a competition in front of the board. ... Who has a higher stack of promises to the local community?” lawyer Hayden said last month.
Government agencies had never conducted a full study of the on-ramp and it was not included in long-range regional transportation plans. But Stadium Casino set aside $19 million in its construction budget to pay for an I-76 highway ramp, Joseph Weinberg, chief executive of the parent company, Cordish Gaming Group, testified in 2014. Weinberg said the commitment was “contingent upon working through the details and feasibility with the state.”
That stretch of I-76 in South Philadelphia has an unusual history, and unlike the rest of the Schuylkill Expressway, it is not under the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The Delaware River Port Authority, the quasi-governmental agency that operates four Delaware River toll bridges, owns and maintains more than two miles of the highway — everything between Passyunk Avenue and the Walt Whitman Bridge.
The roadway was built and designed in the 1950s as a bridge approach, before it was part of the interstate highway system. Its primary mission was to take toll-paying traffic to and from the bridge, not to help traffic originating in Pennsylvania to travel away from the bridge.
The highway’s role as an adjunct to the bridge explains why there are no exits from I-95 for traffic heading west on I-76 — but there are convenient exits on I-95 that take vehicles across the Walt Whitman Bridge. It also explains why there is just that one westbound on-ramp at Broad Street on the DRPA-owned section.
In a previous life, the DRPA might have chipped in to help build a new on-ramp, but its mission was curtailed in 2014 by elected leaders of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, who ordered the agency to focus strictly on projects that benefit bridge traffic or its PATCO commuter rail line. The proposed Seventh Street on-ramp does nothing to benefit toll-paying bridge traffic, said John T. Hanson, the authority’s chief executive officer.
“Our position is that the proposals we’ve seen so far, we’re not in favor of because they involve us maintaining the ramp, being involved in the construction of the ramp, and receiving no compensation for our land,” said Hanson.
Hanson said the DRPA is not opposed to a ramp — it is just forbidden from paying for any of it.
“We’re not opposed to giving up the land if we’re appropriately compensated for it,” he said in an interview. “We would entertain proposals for the sale of the land.”
By 2017, after Stadium Casino prevailed in its legal challenges, misgivings emerged about the on-ramp promise. The gaming board quietly modified the license conditions to include a potential exit for Stadium Casino: The licensee now would be required to make its “best efforts” to get the ramp built, but provided for the casino to seek relief if the project was determined to be not feasible.
The city and PennDot, in letters to the gaming board, say the proposed on-ramp would alleviate traffic congestion and provide an immediate benefit to South Philadelphia, but they acknowledged that the Seventh Street location has problems.
“While the city fully supports a second ramp to serve the area, the city also recognizes that the location under discussion by the Gaming Control Board at Seventh Street has challenges of its [own],” Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy said in a letter to the gaming board.
The proposed Seventh Street on-ramp would require several federal highway design waivers.
Traffic entering from the Seventh Street ramp would merge onto I-76 in the same short stretch of roadway where vehicles are trying to exit the highway at Broad Street, creating a potentially dangerous “weaving” condition. It would also have to fit into a snug property, now used mostly as a dog run, between the highway and an enclave of residences and Stella Maris Catholic Church.
“I think the property’s too pretty for another ramp,” said Jeanette Nolfi, a retired DRPA toll collector who lives in the 30-unit Whitman Court apartment building, whose units, including the one she occupies, would face onto the proposed ramp site.
PennDot estimates that it would cost $8 million to $10 million to construct a new ramp, said Brad Rudolph, a spokesman. The agency believes the nonstandard ramp dimensions would get approved because the speed limit for the roadway is only 45 miles per hour, and average daily traffic on the DRPA’s section of I-76 is “fairly low.”
The section of I-76 is also part of a broader study that PennDot is conducting of the I-95 corridor, which may eventually recommend major changes of interchanges, some of which may require a change of ownership from the DRPA to PennDot. That study is due to be completed next year.
The casino says its lenders are looking for clarity over the extent of Stadium Casino’s on-ramp obligations, and it hopes to resolve the issue soon. One resolution that is under discussion would require the casino to put up a fixed amount of money in a bond, for a limited number of years, that would go toward an on-ramp project to be built by a public agency.
The casino argues that its patrons will be minor contributors to traffic congestion, because even during peak periods on Friday and Saturday nights, they do not leave the venue at the same time, as do spectators at a sporting event.
And the casino operator says it is not getting a free ride on city streets: It is paying about a million dollars to put in new traffic signals at three intersections, to repave Packer Avenue, to install an underground cable to connect traffic lights and cameras, and to build a raised bicycle lane by the complex.