Power Lunch: Roads Warrior

Tom Caramanico — engineer, transportation expert, humanitarian — ruminates on a second deck for the Schuylkill Expressway, saving the children, and Center City’s suburb

SK: But that doesn’t give us new capacity to handle traffic.

TC: The Rendell administration has focused on reconstruction, not new capacity. There’s a public policy view that constraining capacity growth delivers more ridership to SEPTA. We’ve been doing that for nearly four decades; it hasn’t ratcheted up ridership. Instead, people move to the suburbs and the exurbs. What do we get? More sprawl. It’s a mistake not to have capacity improvements where they’ll have the biggest bang.

SK: Such as?

TC: I-95 at the Blue Route interchange. Sometimes the backups go for miles. Another lane would relieve that bottleneck.

SK: And the Schuylkill Expressway. That doesn’t seem to be on anybody’s radar.

TC: It’s on mine. The best solution is to construct a second level. That could be done with private funding, with a toll on the upper lanes. But it’s tough to get things done in the city. Where would you get off? Are you going to increase traffic to certain neighborhoods?

SK: Can the city get over this hurdle?

TC: I’m not sure. It’s hard to do anything here, a lot easier in the ’burbs. We haven’t built infrastructure in the city, and we haven’t grown the jobs base. Developers and employers didn’t move out to Chester County and Montgomery County just because it’s pretty. They followed government investments along 202 and 422, and the sewers and water systems made jobs. We should learn from that.

SK: Can’t public transit provide the kind of infrastructure you’re talking about?

TC: Our transit system was originally built more than 100 years ago. We haven’t changed much other than the airport line and the commuter tunnel. Back then, Philly was the center of manufacturing. Today, we have a completely different economy but the same rail transit system. We’re puffing out our chests about how other cities would love to have our extensive transit system, but we’ve barely invested in it or expanded it.

SK: What is key for these projects?

TC: Having a champion, like a state senator. They have leverage with governors.

SK: Speaking of: You spend a lot of time in the world of politics and civic affairs. Is that good for business, or is there more to it?

TC: I never worry about whether it’s good for business. I supported you, didn’t I? Twice! I’d rather be behind someone I believe in, who’s prepared to change the status quo. You can’t get things done without intersecting with power — and that’s politics, government and the civic world. I have strong opinions. I find that people are ready to listen when you engage and don’t just throw punches. Of course, I wish the business community packed more punch.

SK: You’ve also found time to lead the board of a charter school.

TC: The Freire Charter School [at 2027 Chestnut Street] asked for help. They wanted to fix up a building.