Inga Saffron: Could I-95 be destroyed to improve waterfront?

By Christopher Wink

What if we just got rid of I-95?

In a high profile feature written from Boston for Sunday’s Inquirer by the paper’s celebrated architecture critic, growing attention paid to dismantling a one-mile stretch of the interstate that separates much of the city from the Delaware River is compared to bean town’s notorious “Big Dig,” and other urban projects that jettisoned highway systems.

“The question we should be asking right now is: Do we rebuild I-95 as is, or do we rethink the whole thing?” Harris Steinberg, who runs the nonprofit consulting firm PennPraxis, which developed a waterfront policy for the city in 2007, told Saffron. The Obama administration’s interest in urban areas, he said, “has given the city a license to do something bold.”

The Northeast is surely as a part of 95 as any part of Philadelphia, so a big part of the discussion is what the people think.

Here’s the heart of the discussion here: Instead of burying the highway in an expensive tunnel, they would entirely rip out a stretch of I-95 that runs south of the Ben Franklin Bridge and I-676. Traffic volume drops off there, proponents argue, because the bulk of the highway’s users are commuting into Center City from the north. Airport travelers, they point out, can take I-676 to I-76.

With I-95 out of the picture, cars would flow along the Delaware River on Columbus Boulevard. That road would still give drivers access to Penn’s Landing, the South Philadelphia retail chains, and the sports complex. But drivers would be traveling on a city street bounded by sidewalks and bike lanes and regulated by traffic signals. The highway could pick up again around South Street, or perhaps Washington Avenue. [Source] It will come as no surprise that many of the readers who commented on the story were less than convinced of the efficacy of carting away a portion of 95 entirely.

Because it’s easy to picture someone from Torresdale or Holmesburg  – and other Northeast neighborhoods along 95 – saying the same thing, here are some of our favorite and perhaps most insightful comments on the interesting story.

  • …Please consider the following excerpts: “With I-95 out of the picture, cars would flow along the Delaware River on Columbus Boulevard.” I think “flow” is the wrong verb. “Airport travelers, they point out, can take I-676 to I-76.” Only a crack addict would consider the Schuylkill Expressway a viable alternative to handle much more traffic. “The park totally lacks definition that you get from buildings” Someone should tell this Einstein that a tract of land with buildings is not a park. “The Big Dig has created the potential for $7 billion in construction and 43,000 jobs.” Translation: it hasn’t created any jobs, just an idea about jobs. [Posted byJohnCollins 06:34 AM, 06/28/2009]
  • While the scar that I-95 cuts across the city needs to be healed, you can’t just dump thousands of hourly cars onto an already congested Delaware Ave, or expect them to brave the perpetual backups of the Vine and the Schuylkill to continue their trip south. And why is it that only the part of i-95 by old city deserves this, don’t residents of Pennsport and Norther Liberties count? [Posted by Pelti 07:30 AM, 06/28/2009]
  • You cannot equate I-95 to the Big Dig or the Embaradero Freeway. I-95 in Philadelphia is SOLELY a local access road, since somehow, Pennsylvania’s sheep in Congress have allowed New Jersey to prevent completion of I-95 through to New York in order to force people to take the New Jersey Turnpike. Thus, I-95 ends at Trenton and no significant through traffic uses it. Secondly, unlike virtually every other major metropolitan area, Philadelphia has no true “Beltway” offering another method to get around Center City Philadelphia and points north—the Blue Route/PA Turnpike combination is horrible and nothing loops Philadelphia to the East in New Jersey (see above comment on PA sheep in Congress). There is therefore no alternative for commuters by auto or travelers to the Northern Philly suburbs. If you demolish I-95, you are talking long delays, more air pollution, etc. While I am strongly in favor of new mass transit initiatives, you cannot write off the automobile in the next 50 years and we have to rebuild I-95 at the end of its current useful life. The only real problem is the sunken portion of about 1 1/2 miles through Center City. Put a roof on it, and continue the grid over that roof as if it is a natural hill. While not inexpensive, it would be far cheaper than building a tunnel as in Boston and the sale of development rights over the roof would pay for its construction. With the City grid built to Delaware avenue, there would then be the environment for us to actually use our waterfront. [Posted by Palestra Jon 07:48 AM, 06/28/2009]

What do you think!? Could this ever work? Do you want to see I-95 changed along the tourist areas of Old Cty?

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