The long-awaited, $420 million direct connection between I-95 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike moved closer to reality Thursday with the approval of a $155 million section of the work.
The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which oversees federal and state funding for transportation projects in the Philadelphia region, agreed to separate the $155 million project to allow work to start in June.
The $155 million will pay for widening and reconstructing about four miles of the turnpike in Bristol Township where the connection with I-95 will be built. It will also pay for building three new turnpike bridges and installing the piers for the flyover ramps for the connection.
When the first stage of the direct connection is completed in 2018, I-95 will be rerouted onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike east of the connection and then onto the New Jersey Turnpike. The current I-95 north of the connection will be redesignated as I-195.
The changes will finally provide an unbroken I-95 between Maine and Florida. There currently is a missing section in New Jersey near Trenton.
Since I-95 was built through Bucks County in 1969, crossing the turnpike, motorists and truckers have complained about the lack of a direct link between the two superhighways. Drivers must exit to local roads and then enter the adjoining highway.
"I've worked on this for over a decade," said Leslie S. Richards, a Montgomery County commissioner who is the vice chair of the DVRPC. "It's been a long time coming."
But even with the completion of the first stage in 2018, the only direct connections will be from the westbound turnpike to southbound I-95, and from northbound I-95 to the eastbound turnpike.
All the other direct connections will have to wait for the still unfunded Stage 2, which is expected to begin construction in 2020.
The Turnpike Commission and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation plan to put the $155 million project out for bids on April 24, with a contract to be let on June 5.
The heavily indebted Turnpike Commission is providing $54 million for the $155 million project; the rest is coming from federal coffers.
The contribution from the Turnpike Commission is from its general fund.
To cover an additional $200 million in construction costs, the Turnpike Commission has come up with an exotic financing plan that involves borrowing from wealthy foreign investors in exchange for green cards for themselves and their families to live in the United States.
That complex deal is being brokered by officers of a prominent and politically connected Philadelphia investment management company, the Swarthmore Group.
The deal was suggested to turnpike officials by Turnpike Commissioner Pasquale T. "Pat" Deon Sr., a Bucks County restaurateur and beer distributor and Republican power broker.
Last April, the Turnpike Commission signed a $200 million loan agreement with a newly created firm, DVRC Pennsylvania Turnpike L.P., which plans to collect at least $500,000 each from foreign investors, expected to be primarily from China.
The firm will then lend the money to the turnpike, at lower-than-market rates, for construction of the I-95 connection.
Such financing deals are made throughout the United States under the federal Immigrant Investor Program, created by Congress in 1990 to grant "EB-5" immigration visas to wealthy investors who provide money to U.S. projects that will create at least 10 American jobs within two years.
The investors and their families get a quick path to legal residence in the United States.
For the turnpike project, foreign-investor money will fill a gap left by inadequate federal funding, turnpike officials say.
Nikolaus Grieshaber, chief financial officer of the Turnpike Commission, said last year the deal would save the turnpike about $35 million over five years. The foreign-investor deal offers financing at a 2 percent annual interest rate, about half the rate for municipal-bond borrowing, Grieshaber said.
The turnpike expects to receive its first $50 million installment from the deal later this year, and all of the money is expected to be received by 2016.
The $420 million project to link the turnpike and I-95 will include two high-speed flyover" connections, a new mainline turnpike toll plaza, and a new all-electronic toll facility to collect tolls from westbound-only traffic just west of the Delaware River.
The new all-electronic toll gantry will mean an additional toll for westbound drivers on the turnpike. Both eastbound and westbound drivers also will be tolled at a relocated toll plaza eight miles away, just east of the Bensalem interchange.
The new westbound-only toll will be similar to the Gateway toll facility for eastbound-only drivers at the other end of the turnpike, just east of the Ohio border, said turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo. Unlike the Gateway facility, the new Bucks County toll gantry will be all-electronic, with drivers paying by E-ZPass or by mail after their license plates are photographed.
Further down the road, in 2025 or later, construction will begin on a second Delaware River bridge just south of the current span.
The plans for the project can be seen at www.paturnpikei95.com