A highway through East Falls?

    Ray Lucci published this essay in August’s edition of The Fallser. 

    Due to the fact that no accidents were reported to the East Falls Community Council Traffic Committee as The Fallser went to press, we bring you a brief history of a proposal to construct a highway through the Northwest Philadelphia neighborhoods of Manayunk, East Falls, and North Philadelphia.

    This was a serious proposal in response to the problem of congestion on I-76 a few years after that infamous highway was opened to traffic in the mid-1950s.

    The information below was pulled from the website, Philly Roads.

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    East Bank Expressway

    As early as 1960, the capacity and safety problems of the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76) had become chronic. That year, the Keystone Automobile Club (the predecessor to AAA Mid-Atlantic) recommended construction of a new four-lane expressway on the east bank 
of the Schuylkill River, paralleling the route of the existing Schuylkill Expressway on the west bank of the river. The “east bank expressway” recommendation came following a state- sponsored study of the chronic congestion on the Schuylkill Expressway, which had just been completed the year before the report.

    In 1962, the Pennsylvania Highway Department formally announced plans for 
the Manayunk Expressway, a 16-mile-long route extending from Plymouth Meeting to South Philadelphia. Upon the announcement, William Berry, vice president of the Keystone Automobile Club, praised the state for its foresight as follows:

    “We believe that improvements now being planned to ease the flow of traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway, together with construction of the Manayunk Expressway on the other side of the river, will effectively solve traffic and congestion problems.”

    The $30 million expressway was to be a state route (it did not have a known designation), and its construction cost was to be borne 50-50 between the state and Federal governments. It was to be constructed along the following alignment:

    • Beginning in Plymouth Meeting, the Manayunk Expressway was to provide connections to the Pennsylvania Turnpike-Delaware River Extension (I-276), the Pennsylvania Turnpike- Northeast Extension and the Mid-County Expressway / Blue Route (I-476).

    • Continuing south past Conshohocken, the expressway was to veer southeast along the east bank of the Schuylkill River through the industrial communities of Roxborough and Manayunk. For a distance of approximately four miles, the expressway was to utilize the old Manayunk Canal bed.

    • Just past Gustine Lake, an interchange was to have been constructed between the Manayunk Expressway and the Roosevelt Expressway.

    • As the Schuylkill River winds its way through Fairmount Park, the Manayunk Expressway was to utilize the right-of-way for Kelly (East River) Drive. However, David Smallwood, the Philadelphia streets commissioner, opposed the use of Kelly Drive for the expressway, and instead proposed a route along Ridge Avenue and North 33rd Street (US 13), just east of Fairmount Park.

    • In Center City Philadelphia, an interchange was to have been constructed between the Manayunk Expressway and the Vine Street Expressway.

    Manayunk Expressway

    The Keystone Automobile Club refused to let the Manayunk Expressway proposal die. Throughout the late 1960s, the organization continued to appeal for construction of the parallel route as congestion on the Schuylkill Expressway continued to worsen.

    Henry L. Moffett, who succeeded Berry at the Keystone Automobile Club, said the following about the need for the Manayunk Expressway:

    “It has been obvious for years that the only truly realistic solution to our highway problem is the planning and construction of a parallel expressway on the opposite side of the Schuylkill.”

    However, when Mayor James Tate declared Kelly (East River) Drive a “scenic highway,” he effectively killed plans for the Manayunk Expressway in the City of Philadelphia.

    Nevertheless, plans for the expressway managed to survive north and west of the city line. In 1969, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) devised plans for a truncated highway – then proposed as the “North Shore Expressway” – along the east bank of the Schuylkill River in Montgomery County. The 2.4-mile-long, $12 million route was to connect the I-276 / I-476 interchange in Plymouth Meeting with the (un-built) Ten-Mile-Loop Expressway, providing a parallel route to Germantown Pike. This long-range proposal, which was originally scheduled for completion in 1985, was ultimately dropped by the DVRPC.

    Henry Ave. “Throughway”

    When I first chanced upon this article, I immediately came to the conclusion, that although the proposal for an east bank highway was shelved, the need for a “relief route” parallel to I-76 could not have disappeared.

    Well then, what was the logical alternative? It seems to be that the brilliant idea was to maintain Henry Avenue as a “Throughway” (from a 1955 article) parallel to I-76 here on the “east bank” of the river. Hence the genesis of our current problems with this dangerous roadway lies in the faulty and shortsighted planning of traffic engineers at the state level in the 1950s and 1960s. They obviously did not give much consideration to the fact that the road runs through mostly residential neighborhoods. They altered the roadscape with highway guardrails and highway grade overhead signage so that motorists would be sublimely encouraged to speed along it as if it were a bona fide highway.

    If Fallser or NewsWorks readers witness or learn of a traffic accident in or in close proximity to our community, please send the information to the East Falls Community Council at info@eastfallscommunity.org.

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