One of Fishtown’s most direct connections with I-95 got shut down a few weeks ago, causing detours and delays that might inspire libertarian rancor against PennDot. Instead, some have greeted the new traffic pattern with surprising magnanimity.
“You’ve just got to deal with it,” said Saqib Sultan, 32. “Philadelphia’s becoming a bigger hub and there’s just more traffic coming in and out.”
In July, PennDot closed the southbound I-95 off-ramp to Girard Avenue, and it likely won’t reopen until August 2021. Almost 9,000 vehicles a day use that ramp, PennDot reported. Traffic is being routed to the off-ramp at Allegheny Avenue. From there, drivers are directed to turn onto Allen Street and then Richmond Street.
For Sultan, the closure means a longer drive from home near Huntington and Cedar Streets to work at a medical software company in Berlin Township in Camden County and a shorter trip back. He, and many others, are resigned to it, noting other positives from the construction, such as less traffic on some local roads. Some are even celebrating it.
“With Allen Street being one way in the other direction, it gives me a straight shot to Lehigh,” said Natasha Laurenson, 32, who drives several days a week to a horse farm in Medford. “It saves me at least 10 minutes without having to go through all the stop signs. It’s been great.”
For people in Fishtown and Port Richmond, where more than 57 percent of workers commute by car, construction sounds have become a consistent background noise. The ground beneath the highway is a no-man’s land of churned earth and massive machines. And lurking around any corner could be another orange sign declaring, “Road Closed” or “Detour.”
The latest closure comes amid eight years of reshuffling that has left people guessing, sometimes day-to-day, how they are going to get somewhere that once was a straight shot from home.
“We get calls on a regular basis on how do I get there,” said Steve Hartzell, a manager at Marinucci’s Deli at Clementine and Richmond Streets, which has been largely closed to traffic for a year.
Customers regularly ask, he said, “How do I get here today, because it’s different than yesterday.”
The 51 miles of I-95 through Pennsylvania are in the midst of being rebuilt from the ground up in a project that will likely continue for the next two decades. PennDot is conducting the work in a model similar to a Russian Matryoshka doll, with projects within projects. The current work near Girard Avenue is one step in a larger effort that will see $312 million in construction through 2023.
The highway between Palmer Street and Ann Street is being replaced, and eventually all the on- and off-ramps at Girard Avenue will be rebuilt. That stretch of highway is itself one step in an effort to replace the elevated highway from Cottman Avenue to the Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia. A decade will likely pass before that $2.7 billion phase is complete, and after that, three other chunks of the highway will be rebuilt.
An English teacher who commutes from Fishtown to a high school in Bridesburg predicts that the full impact of the off-ramp closure won’t be felt until school starts again.
“Every way I can think of that I can try to get home is going to be a one-lane disaster,” said Holly Downey, 39. “With all the added traffic of all the kids going back to school, it’s just going to be a big headache.”
The work isn’t limited to the highway. Adjacent local roads are getting facelifts, too, with promises of thruways that are more pedestrian friendly. In the meantime, though, the work often means a lot less parking.
Kimberly Lageman’s boyfriend lives on Fletcher Street about a block from Girard. The latest construction has robbed the neighborhood of space for cars, she said.
“There’s at least three blocks worth of parking that don’t exist,” said the 50-year-old artist, who maintains a studio in Fishtown.
All the work is designed to keep the 50-year-old highway viable for the near future and, in the process, revitalize neighborhoods scarred when the original I-95 construction slashed through them decades ago.
Richmond Street, closed through an earlier phase of highway construction, is expected to reopen at the end of the year. The $32 million in construction includes street widening, new lights, trees, and the return of the Route 15 trolley north of Girard and Frankford Avenues. Buses have replaced trolleys since 2012 because of the construction, but PennDot has promised that trolleys will again travel to Richmond and Westmoreland Streets and have new stations. SEPTA estimated the trolley would resume its full service in 2020 or 2021.
People who opened businesses recently along Richmond Street in Port Richmond knew they would have virtually no car traffic to provide business but hope toughing it out now will be worth the effort.
“It’s definitely not a perfect environment for business,” said Joseph Livewell, 33, who opened River Wards Cafe about three years ago.
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His business stopped growing once the road closure began. The promise of a trolley that will link to the Market-Frankford Line and, through that, to jobs-rich Center City, though, is worth the trouble.
“I felt like we had the neighborhood behind us,” he said. “Not to make light of the fact that it’s not very easy to thrive when you’re in the middle of a construction zone.”
In the here and now, meanwhile, they’ve just got longer commutes.
Mary Kate Freeman, 25, traverses the Betsy Ross Bridge each day to her nursing job at Virtua Hospital in Voorhees, where she works 13-hour shifts. Her ride home, typically after 8 p.m., is now 10 minutes longer.