Andrew Stober, Mayor Nutter’s point person on transportation, had the unenviable task Thursday night of trying to defend the planned reconstruction of the least loveable piece of infrastructure in Philadelphia - the 10-lane stretch of I-95 that cuts off Center City from the Delaware River - before a crowd that thinks the highway should never have been built in the first place.
Stober was speaking at “Reimagining Urban Highways,” a panel organized by Diana Lind of the group Next America City and previewed here. In an effort to start a conversation about the future of I-95, which comes up for a federally mandated overhaul in 2040, Lind assembled some of the nation’s top highway removal experts to share their experiences. City Hall had initially refused to participate in the event, but at the last minute Stober was dispatched by his boss, Deputy Mayor Rina Cuter, to make the administration’s case for keeping I-95 exactly as it is. That alone was progress. Until Thursday, Cutler had squashed any talk in City Hall of burying, capping, narrowing or eliminating I-95.
Stober did a good job of putting the administration’s views in a larger context, and made a compelling argument for prioritizing mass transit, calling SEPTA “an incredible inheritance.” But it also became clear that Cutler’s office rejected a redesign for I-95 without ever having done a comparative, cost-benefit analysis of the possible scenarios. Until that happens, Philadelphia can’t have a truly informed debate on the issue.
Stober identified four main reasons why altering I-95’s current configuration won’t work. I’ll spell them out here and then discuss why they sound more like excuses than real analysis.
1: The city is committed to expanding the South Philadelphia port facility. If that happens, I-95 will become a crucial trucking route and Philadelphia will need every inch of its 10 lanes.
2: Philadelphia has very little discretionary money to spend on infrastructure. The administration believes that improving the regional transit network is more important than reconnecting the city back to the waterfront. Top priorities are building a Roosevelt Avenue transit line (light rail or bus rapid transit) and doubling the frequency of regional rail trains. Although the federal government is obliged to pay for the overhaul of I-95, Philadelphia would have to pick up part of the bill - from 10 to 20 percent – if the road design were changed. That contribution, Stober suggested, could run into the billions and suck up all the spare change in City Hall. Boston is spending so much to repay its share of loans for the Big Dig, it has been forced to make deep cuts in transit and other essential services.
3: There’s no money for federal projects that are already scheduled. Given the nation’s political gridlock on transportation policy, Stober argued that Washington is unlikely to make good on the mandated overhaul of I-95 - nevermind fund a new design.
4: 2040 is a long ways away and the administration is too busy “planning for action” to waste its time on something so speculative.
There is some merit in the first three (but not the fourth) arguments, but here’s why they’re really justifications for inertia.
1. The Port: If you want to talk about a pipe dream with very little payback, expanding Philadelphia’s port is it. The reason port activities have shrunk in the city is because an automated container port located 100 miles upriver from the Atlantic Ocean can’t possibly compete with the more accessible ports with ocean frontage, like Wilmington and Elizabeth. Philadelphia’s facility does have a future, but as a boutique port where perishable bulk goods like fruit and chocolate are offloaded by brawny men. To predicate the preservation of the 10-lane highway on such a niche business seems logically backwards.
It’s also worth noting that there is relatively little I-95 traffic south of the Ben Franklin bridge. Stober and Lind disagreed over the exact numbers, but we’ve seen city after city dispense with downtown highways with little ill effect on travel times. Traffic, like water, tends to find its own level. After New York’s West Side Highway collapsed in 1973, the 110,000 cars a day dispersed to other routes and no one noticed the difference, panel moderator Aaron Naparstek, founder of Streetsblog.org, told me.
2. Transit: Kudos to Cutler and Stober for focusing on transit. Their top priority is building a rail line on Roosevelt Boulevard, which would connect the northeast section of the city into the regional network and dramatically improve the area’s economic prospects. They also favor increasing the frequency of trains on the regional rail lines.
Who wouldn’t love having the regional rail trains run every 15 minutes? If SEPTA doubled the frequency of its trains and ran them later in the evening, rail commuters would have less of an excuse to drive into Center City. Such a policy could, theoretically, eliminate the need for more downtown parking garages (assuming the city stopped increasing supply by approving new garages).
On the other hand, if the aim is to fund the project with the broadest public reach, regional rail isn’t exactly it. Only 10 percent of SEPTA’s ridership – about 80,000 - uses the regional system. How’s that project more relevant than removing I-95 and creating acres of developable waterfront property? As for the Roosevelt Boulevard line, well, it’s been a priority in every city administration for the last 50 years. It needs to happen now. But making I-95 less of an intrusive presence could give the city an economic boost, too, Removing the road would create large tracts of developable land and enable Philadelphia to develop a new, tax-generating neighborhood.
3. No federal money If Washington really does eliminate funding for all highway reconstruction, then I-95 will crumble on its own. Unfortunately, we’ll just have to wait till the 22nd century for it to happen.
4. 2040 is too far in the future to start planning for now: Lamest excuse of all. The future is here before you know it.
So, what needs to be done next? It wouldn’t cost much for the city to undertake a rigorous cost-benefit analysis of several scenarios. I suggest exploring a range of options that could include 1)Burying the highway Boston-style. 2) Removing the highway and diverting traffic onto Columbus Boulevard. 3) Narrowing I-95, but not eliminating it totally. 4) Narrowing both I-95 AND Columbus Boulevard. 5) Enlarging the cap over I-95 and extending the structure down to the waterfront, but keeping I-95 in place.
The goal of the analysis would be look at the rough costs of each proposal, the quantity of developable land that would be created and the amount new tax revenue that could be generated for the city. That would give Philadelphians some data to understand the problem.
Then it might actually be possible to have a serious conversation about whether it’s worth keeping or scrapping I-95.