PennDOT issues RFP for I-95 design makeover

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation issued a request for proposal a few weeks ago in order to find a design manager to help develop a long-term, broad-based plan for the reconstruction of 51 miles of aging Interstate 95.

The highway, which is primarily elevated as it cuts through about five miles of densely populated Philadelphia on its way to Delaware, is reaching the end of its useful life and will need to be replaced. Work on the Philadelphia portion has already begun north of Race Street, with construction scheduled to replace the Girard Avenue interchange.

PennDOT currently has seven design contracts in place that will lead to 15 construction contracts totaling $2 billion. Two construction contracts valued at $41 million are in place and a $180- to $200-million construction contract is scheduled to be awarded in December 2010. The remaining construction contracts valued at between $80 to $320 million are scheduled to be awarded at six month intervals through the year 2016. Long-term strategies for rebuilding or improving the remaining 46 miles have also been established.

The winning firm will look at techniques and strategies for rebuilding the highway as well as I-95’s future needs and projected traffic flow. PennDOT also wants the firm to look at funding options for these future projects and may call on the firm to do project management for work that’s already begun.

Even though much of the construction work  — on areas south of Race Street and running through Chester City — is about a decade away, “people have to start thinking about these things,” said Chuck Davies, the PennDOT engineer in charge of design for the Philadelphia region. It takes years to properly carry out a massive project like I-95, and a comprehensive plan needs to be in place before any construction begins, Davies said.

The firm PennDOT selects will be thrust into the middle of an ongoing debate over the future of the highway and its relationship with neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

Harris Steinberg, executive director of PennPraxis, does not want PennDOT to miss an opportunity to re-envision the relationship between the highway and the city it cuts in two. Steinberg, who led the two-year-long civic planning and visioning process along the central Delaware waterfront, wants PennDOT to consider capping or sinking parts of the highway to better connect riverward neighborhoods and Center City with the river.

He said that PennDOT’s emerging plan, which appears to be aimed at essentially rebuilding the highway as-is, represents a capitulation to a “failed 20th century philosophy” of urban planning.

Steinberg and other proponents of a strategy that would cap or sink sections of the highway, point to other cities’ experience with mitigating their highways’ effect on neighborhoods. San Francisco, for instance, demolished the Embarcadero Freeway in 1989 and replaced it with a street-level boulevard that is now the focal point of Fisherman’s Wharf, in the city’s tourist district.

And back in 1974, the same year construction of I-95 began in Philadelphia, Portland, Oregon, demolished a four-lane highway to create an urban park that today forms a cornerstone of that city’s downtown renaissance.

Though the cost of capping the highway is expected to run into the billions — $10 billion being the oft-cited amount — Steinberg wants PennDOT to undertake a formal study to weigh the costs and potential economic and social benefits of that undertaking. He said this type of planning needs to begin early in the design process for it to impact construction.

Not everyone is on board with a radical I-95 redo.

Rina Cutler, deputy mayor for transportation and utilities, reiterated her belief that capping I-95 along the central Delaware would be prohibitively expensive.

“I don’t know why actually it’s still even a question. There’s no way to afford” it, said Cutler, who was Boston’s transportation commissioner when it undertook the massively expensive Big Dig project. Cutler was also director of parking and traffic when San Francisco remade the Embarcadero.

In a sense, Steinberg and Cutler have drawn different conclusions from the same set of facts. Though both are skeptical of any plans to significantly widen the highway, Steinberg thinks the interstate has impeded waterfront development. And since the highway has to be rebuilt anyway, reconstruction represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to accomplish the most far-reaching recommendations of the Civic Vision.

Cutler, on the other hand, points to the 40 streets that already connect the riverfront to the rest of the city. She’d like to see more work to make those roads more attractive but doesn’t think the highway presents an insurmountable barrier to pedestrians and businesses — especially given the projected cost of capping the highway.

In that vein, Cutler added that the city would be monitoring this and other PennDOT contracts concerning I-95 to make sure the agency doesn’t waste money that could be spent on construction. At the same time, she said a long-term vision for construction could be helpful, as could a comprehensive financing plan. Up to now, planning has proceeded on a segment-by-segment basis.

In 2009, PennDOT engaged an advisory group to provide options for alternate strategies to address the needs of I-95 in Pennsylvania. The group produced a report titled “Charting the Course for the future of Interstate 95 in Pennsylvania” which covers many options for rethinking I-95.

Sarah Thorp, master planning project manager for the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., said PennDOT has been happy to work with the waterfront development agency.

Though much of the current work along the waterfront predates the DRWC’s creation and was developed in a vacuum, Thorp said future phases of reconstruction would be more collaborative.

The DRWC has just begun work – with PennDOT – on how I-95 will fit into the master plan it’s developing for the waterfront.

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