Sometime this weekend in Bucks County, new road signs will be unveiled, barricades will be removed, and for the first time cars will drive on an I-95 that runs contiguously from Maine to Florida.
The typical interstate traveler may not be aware that I-95, begun 62 years ago when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, was incomplete. Drivers in Southeastern Pennsylvania are only too familiar, though, with the confusing lack of connections among three major highways that overlap in Bucks County: the north-south interstate, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and I-295.
It's a uniquely Pennsylvania problem: A driver heading north on I-95 could make no turns, take no exits, and yet suddenly end up heading south on an entirely different highway.
Work remains to be done to link all three highways, but as of this weekend, I-95 in Pennsylvania will link to its stretch in New Jersey, also called the New Jersey Turnpike.
"We can finally say it's done," Jay Roth, senior program manager for Jacobs Engineering Group, the chief contractor on the project, said Tuesday, "and that's something to be proud of."
The $450 million project is just a portion of what is planned for the junction. It still isn't possible to go north on I-95 and exit directly to the westbound Pennsylvania Turnpike. That connection and others between I-295 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and I-95 and I-295, are also planned, but finding $450 million for that remains on the Turnpike Commission's to-do list.
Less clear is what will happen to the bridge over the Delaware River that last year had to be closed due to a welding error committed decades ago. That bridge may be upgraded or replaced, planners said.
While the project is being touted as the completion of the East Coast's main artery, most interstate drivers will likely take the more direct route and stick with the New Jersey Turnpike, said Alain Kornhauser, director of Princeton University's transportation program. The project will most benefit the region's drivers, he said.
"It's not really to do the connection from Georgia to Massachusetts, but to get to stuff in North Philly and Northeast Philly," he said. "That's going to help a lot, and it's going to help with some of the commercial traffic."
He said he believed the new connection would even relieve some traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway.
Economic benefits and traffic relief have always been the biggest selling points of the project, those who have worked on it said.
"The economic benefits of that intersection were just pure efficiency," said David Thornburgh, CEO of the Committee of Seventy, who worked on a report on the interchange in 1999 when he was executive director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia. "You can get to work faster."
I-95 isn't particularly scenic for much of its 1,917-mile span, and it takes heat for hacking through city centers. Philadelphia is still contending with the decision in the 1960s to build the highway alongside the Delaware River, dividing the city from its waterfront. A cap over the depressed highway is the latest solution for reconnection.
The highway is a mighty engine, though, moving up to 300,000 vehicles a day. Along its course from Miami to Houlton, Maine, 110 million people live and 40 percent of the country's gross domestic product is generated, according to the I-95 Corridor Coalition.
Yet for decades, planners in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have been challenged to complete what finally came to about 4½ miles of roadway. The history of the connector reflects America's relationship with highways, say people who played a role in shaping the East Coast's interstate.
I-95's route was never entirely dictated by a single master plan. Political interests, money problems, community resistance, and shifting ideas about what a highway should do have all played a role, Kornhauser said.
The early plans to link I-95 near the Delaware River would have run the highway through Trenton, Kornhauser said, but by 1964, slashing through urban centers was recognized as destructive. The proposal also drew the horror of residents in Hunterdon County, who thought the project would devastate the area's rustic landscape. In the late 1970s, the fight was fierce, Kornhauser said, and he noted that even his own suggestion to put the highway underground didn't placate opposition.
Planners turned their eyes to Bucks County by 1982, where they would link I-95 to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which connected to the New Jersey Turnpike. This connection didn't already exist, experts said, because in 1969, when the Pennsylvania stretch of I-95 was finished, the bill funding the interstate highway system prohibited connections with tolled roads, which were considered competition at the time, Kornhauser said.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission was tasked with creating the I-95 connector in 1985, but funding and planning problems slowed progress. To keep from losing dedicated federal funds, planners scaled back the proposal to what will open this weekend, the I-95 connector and a Route 13 connection with the turnpike.
Bucks County residents, though, weren't thrilled that the project New Jersey didn't want was now coming to them.
"I think the thought was, we can bully Bristol Township to do this," recalled Pete Krauss, now head of Bucks County's Industrial Development Authority and at the time a staffer for U.S. Rep. James Greenwood, who represented Bucks County. "They don't have the clout that people in Hunterdon County have."
The original plan would have seized about 150 homes and plowed through Delhaas Woods to build the connectors, Krauss recalled. By 1999, the Turnpike Commission had altered the plan to require taking just 10 homes and sparing the woods, and was also armed with the report from the Economy League that described the benefits of improved connections for the region's highways.
"Conshohocken was hot on people's memory," Thornburgh said. "We connected the Blue Route to the Schuylkill. All of a sudden there was tremendous value in that intersection."
The same would be the case where the turnpike joined I-95, he said. Construction began in 2010.
The report almost 20 years ago said the interchange would draw office space development. Changes in the region shifted the economic benefits toward retail development, but county and local officials are today enthusiastic about the soon-to-open highway. County officials anticipated real estate values would increase, traffic would improve, and commercial shipping through the region would become easier. In Bristol Township, Township Manager Bill McCauley said he's already seen business development in the area near the new interchange.
"I never thought in my lifetime that the Pennsylvania Turnpike and 95 would get connected," he said, "but it's happening, and it should be a great thing."