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20 years later, they love their Blue Route

In Swarthmore, the impact was immediate. One day, the main route through the college town was jammed with the usual traffic. The next, you could actually back out of your driveway.

The Blue Route, southbound near Route 3, linked Chester to the Pennsylvania Turnpike 20 years ago. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)
The Blue Route, southbound near Route 3, linked Chester to the Pennsylvania Turnpike 20 years ago. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)Read more

In Swarthmore, the impact was immediate. One day, the main route through the college town was jammed with the usual traffic. The next, you could actually back out of your driveway.

In Wayne, the transformation took longer. But a staid suburb with a 1980s reputation for pink shirts and green slacks was turned into a lively restaurant destination.

In Conshohocken and West Conshohocken, a Cinderella story played out. A pair of down-at-their-heels river towns came to have a gleaming skyline with office towers, hotels, and hundreds of upscale apartments.

The Blue Route did this - made it possible, at least.

Opened 20 years ago today, on Dec. 19, 1991, the Blue Route completed a high-speed highway network surrounding a Philadelphia that never had a real beltway.

Designated as part of I-476, it opened the western suburbs to renewed development, took traffic off congested local roads, fanned growth of the airport, and cleared a choke point that had slowed long-distance travel to other parts of the Northeast Corridor.

It's become so essential it's often jammed itself.

"I remember hearing a parishioner say, 'Now that the Blue Route is open, it's so much easier to get to our house in Maine,' " recalled the Rev. Richard R. Wohlschlaeger, pastor of Swarthmore Presbyterian Church.

The 21.5-mile road, linking the Pennsylvania Turnpike at Plymouth Meeting with I-95 near Chester, was an economic boon for the region. It helped create jobs in new office parks, at airport business centers, at the expanded King of Prussia mall, even south to Delaware and north to the Poconos.

Suddenly, you could get places, and so could shippers.

"The Blue Route was the missing link," said James Schuster, an emeritus professor of civil engineering at Villanova University who helped write a study on the highway's anticipated impact before it opened.

"The traffic count on the Blue Route is about 100,000 vehicles a day, and those are people going to work," Schuster said.

"That is really about 20,000 to 25,000 jobs," he said. "Let's face it, without the impact of the highway, those jobs wouldn't exist. They would go somewhere else in the state or region or nation. And some would leave the country."

Given the highway's favorable impact today, it's worth remembering the Blue Route almost didn't happen. Opponents delayed it for decades, and fought to delay it far longer.

As early as 1929, when a highway was first proposed, almost everyone agreed a better north-south route was needed, particularly in densely packed Delaware County.

The old main roads (Route 320 through Swarthmore and Route 252 by way of Media) started as wagon trails in Colonial times. By the 1960s, and with increasing magnitude thereafter, they were becoming almost impassable during many hours of the day.

The need was apparent, but the solution wasn't. Everyone wanted access to a high-speed route. No one wanted it to blast through his town or neighborhood. Several routes were considered, each color-coded on a map; the blue one was chosen.

Lawsuits threatened to keep the road tied up forever.

William A. Spingler, a Radnor Township commissioner, recalls giving "my first political speech" in 1962 as a Villanova senior. It was a diatribe against the Blue Route made during an "all-night meeting" at the local high school.

"Radnor was against it because it was going to be a magnet; it was going to bring a lot of traffic," Spingler recalled. "Lancaster Avenue would be jammed. Everyone would come down the Blue Route and jam up Wayne."

That prediction was largely accurate. Wayne often is jammed up. But a downtown commercial district that was clearly struggling amid the recession of the early 1990s has been revitalized with high-end shops and chic eateries.

"Everyone loves it now," Spingler said of the Blue Route. "It is very convenient to get to Villanova basketball games. It is very convenient to get to the airport. It is very convenient to get to jobs and shopping in King of Prussia."

The first shovel of dirt was turned in 1969. But work stopped and started over the years with the action in the courts.

The first segment of the Blue Route - essentially a road to nowhere - was completed from the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76) north to Chemical Road in 1979. Another section, from I-95 to MacDade Boulevard, was finished in 1988. A section from Chemical Road to Germantown Pike, at the turnpike, opened in summer 1991.

The final opening, just before Christmas '91, was from MacDade to the Schuylkill.

Total cost: $750 million.

Throughout the stops and starts, land developers could see the potential for explosive growth in "the Conshohockens," where the new I-476 would cross I-76.

"It's very unusual to have two interstates cross each other, and to have complete local [road] access as well," said developer Donald W. Pulver, who had his eye on the area before the road opened.

John F. Nugent 3d, executive director of the Montgomery County Redevelopment Authority, remembers that Pulver and others waited until the lawsuits were disposed of in the mid-'80s before buying up land rights.

Conshohocken, particularly, was down on its luck. Steel mills and a tire plant had closed. The lower end by the river was derelict, although some land had been cleared with federal aid.

"When the courts determined that the road would be completed, the interests of the development community just skyrocketed," Nugent said. "Land went from $20,000 an acre to $750,000 an acre overnight."

As Blue Route construction began again in 1988, Pulver was ahead of the game. That year, he opened One Tower Bridge, an office building, in West Conshohocken. In 1989, he completed a 17-story, 285-room Marriott Hotel.

Two decades later, West Conshohocken and Conshohocken are unrecognizable. Pulver has gone from one glass-and-steel office tower to eight, and also has built a Marriott Residence Inn on the Conshy side.

Brian O'Neill, the other major developer to transform Conshohocken, has built three Millennium office complexes and nearly 800 upscale apartment units.

Total investment by multiple developers is surely "in the billions of dollars," Pulver said.

The communities, as a whole, have become more affluent, with an influx of young professionals.

"This was a dilapidated town," said Jack Coll, a Conshohocken merchant and local historian. "Once that Blue Route became definite, all of a sudden things jumped."

Even old foes in lower Delaware County, who were most afraid of the Blue Route, have come to see its blessings.

It was they who forced planners to reduce the capacity of the highway at its lower end, south of Route 3, from three lanes in each direction to two.

Many of them now sit with thousands of other drivers in the rush-hour traffic jams that narrowing often causes.

Highway engineers have tried over the years to ease the flow by installing "intelligent" devices, such as stop-and-go lights on entry ramps, message boards, and cameras for quicker police response to accidents.

On the northern end, congestion has been especially bad in the last three years because of $119 million in reconstruction on the twin Schuylkill bridges and the 3.2-mile section from the Schuylkill to Chemical Road, near the turnpike entrance.

"The bridges needed major repairs, and the concrete pavement was shot," said Gene Blaum, regional spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

PennDot has no plans to widen the Blue Route.

Jeffrey Darlin, who lives in Swarthmore and is facilities director at the Presbyterian church, said the Blue Route was noisy and could be heard across town.

"But overall, it's been a great benefit for Swarthmore," he said. "It's taken a lot of traffic off 320."

All it takes for locals to appreciate the highway is for it to get really backed up, he said. Then, a lot of traffic jumps off - and gets right back on the old route.

And that's when you can't back out of the driveway.

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