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I-95 construction should end by the time your grandkids are driving

After a decade, PennDot is about halfway finished with one segment of the highway. There are three more segments to go.

PennDOT is reconstructing the southbound side of I-95 between Allegheny and Girard Avenues. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
PennDOT is reconstructing the southbound side of I-95 between Allegheny and Girard Avenues. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)Read more--- Charles Fox / Staff Photographer

By the time the I-95 reconstruction is complete, you’ll probably be too old to have to worry about a commute.

The same goes for the planners, engineers, managers, and laborers who for more than a decade have worked to rebuild the highway’s 51 miles in Pennsylvania from the ground up. Their careers at PennDot or with contractors will almost surely end before construction does.

“I don’t know that I think about too much that I’m not going to be here,” said Elaine Elbich, PennDot’s portfolio manager for the I-95 project.

Elbich plans with a span of decades in mind. From PennDot’s regional office in King of Prussia, she looks at maps showing the highway’s path from Delaware County to Bucks and can identify what will be finished in the 2020s, the 2030s, and beyond.

The Curious Philly portal invites readers to ask the Inquirer questions about the city and region; one reader wondered how much longer highway construction would last. That person, and the many others who face diversions and delays because of the project, should not expect relief any time soon.

The portion of the road under construction now, from Cottman Avenue to the Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia, won’t be finished for another nine or 10 years, and that’s just one of four segments to be rebuilt.

The project has prompted complaints, especially when traffic patterns shift to make room for construction. Officials hope, though, that drivers recognize the need.

“I think people understand,” said Leslie Richards, Pennsylvania’s transportation secretary. “They’ve been driving over it, and they knew it needed some work.”

An early preview of an aging I-95 came in 2008 when a crack in a pier supporting the road, probably created when road salt seeped into the concrete, closed the highway and forced traffic onto local roads like Richmond Street and Aramingo Avenue. The travel nightmares that followed were instructional, Elbich said. It was clear that shutting down I-95 to hasten a rebuild wasn’t an option.

“We’re ahead of it,” she said. “This was the time to do it.”

Nationally, the 1,917-mile highway stretching from Miami to Houlton, Maine, moves up to 300,000 vehicles a day, according to the I-95 Corridor Coalition. But, built in the 1960s and ’70s, the road is showing its years. Virginia, Florida, and Connecticut have all committed to major I-95 projects recently, the Federal Highway Administration reported.

The Pennsylvania segment under construction now is about eight miles long and used by 180,000 vehicles daily. Workers have been inching their way from north to south and, a decade in, are about halfway done. This portion of work will cost $2.7 billion, including the design costs. The Federal Highway Administration is footing 90 percent of the bill. Because of the scope and time frame of the full project, PennDot doesn’t have an overall cost estimate.

Closing lanes would speed the work, but the Federal Highway Administration requires that three lanes remain open at all times. PennDot has adapted by narrowing shoulders to make space for construction. PennDot also must coordinate construction with Peco, the water company, and cell phone providers, which all use the highway corridor as a path for their own networks.

The entire stretch under construction now is elevated, requiring contractors to build an entirely new support structure slightly shorter than the original alongside the active roadway. Construction has bled onto streets adjacent to the highway, too, as PennDot hopes planned to better integrate the highway with economic drivers such as the Conrail tracks, industrial development near the Betsy Ross Bridge, and marine terminals, officials said.

Planning the project has meant acknowledging that this portion of the highway is deeply entwined with homes along much of its length. All-night work would be a nightmare for the neighbors, so construction is generally limited from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. to reduce noise complaints and may go no later than 8 p.m., officials said. Construction methods also are designed to reduce noise. New support columns are not being built on posts that require jackhammers to install. Instead, PennDot is using micropiles, which require more, smaller holes be drilled to create the support structure for the pillars, a quieter process.

Noise walls rising up to 13 feet above the road are being made with transparent material to provide better views of the Delaware River. Storm water retention areas are being landscaped and seeded with plants able to withstand runoff, and PennDot is adding green space and parks both beneath and alongside the elevated roadway with brighter lighting and widened sidewalks and trails.

“It’s also been a great opportunity for us to connect our neighborhoods that got bisected,” Richards said.

The portion of the highway under construction is the only part of the project that’s fully funded, but the burden on PennDot is lightened somewhat by other projects. In September, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission opened a connection between I-95’s Pennsylvania and New Jersey stretches, and next year work is expected to begin on a cap over a below-grade stretch of the highway between Chestnut and Walnut Streets. Between the two projects, that’s about 10 miles less for PennDot to manage.

When the work on the current section is complete, possibly by 2030, PennDot will move south. With the cap complete, about seven miles through Center City to Broad Street will remain to finish. After that, it’s on to the 18 miles of highway in Delaware and Bucks Counties, along with 13 miles of reconstruction on I-295 in Bucks County. Those miles will be easier and cheaper, officials said, since the highway is at ground level.

Elbich estimated that it would be about 40 years before work was finished on every mile of the highway in Pennsylvania. The rebuilt highway should last 75 to 100 years, Richards said. If that holds true, by about the turn of the century, it would be time to begin construction all over again.