On June 29, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill allocating $25 billion in federal funds to build 41,000 miles of highways across America. Ike was in the hospital for stomach pain when he launched what we now call the Interstate Highway System.
Sinclair Weeks, Secretary of Commerce at the time, called it “the greatest public works program in the history of the world.” Author Phil Patton wrote in 1986 that the plan, which Congress approved with bipartisan support, was “the last program of the New Deal and the first space program.” Dan McNichol, who wrote a history of the interstate system
and was a White House transportation adviser to George H.W. Bush, told me, “It is probably the single greatest physical model of American democracy.”
This fall, the original vision of Eisenhower’s grand interstate highway system will officially be finished, near a massage parlor and a cannabis dispensary in Bristol.
One day recently, standing atop one of the twin gigantic elevated arcs that will finally make I-95 continuous from Florida to Maine, on virgin concrete roadway not yet open to the public, Patrick Kelly took in the vista. Kelly is a project manager at Jacobs Engineering, the design management firm for the massive undertaking. It was his first time actually walking on the new highway connection.
“This has been 90 percent of my job for 13 years,” he said. “I’ve done 40 other projects, and you’re driving with your kids and you say, ‘Dad designed this road.’ But this is just — what a beast.”
Nearby, Mike Phillips, the project manager from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, who tends to thousands of daily details on the job, seemed concerned that the new noise-reduction walls along the roadway and the concrete supports under it, called piers, were presenting an irresistible canvas to local graffiti taggers.
“We have a guy down here, his tag name is Super Fresh Outlaw,” Phillips explained, with a mix of exasperation and admiration. “I’m trying to find him through social media. I don’t even want to arrest him. I want to give him a job, so he stops painting our stuff.”
There are a lot of reasons why this $420 million highway project is a milestone — some of them practical, some historic, and some, if we can wax poetic, kind of symbolic. For starters, two of the Commonwealth’s busiest highways, the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate 95, will be directly connected for the first time ever, after close to 50 years of crossing without touching.
The new connection also remedies another 50-year-old whoops. It makes I-95 unbroken — and, more importantly for this region, directly connects Philadelphia to New York. This hasn’t been the case before. For decades, I-95 has had a miles-long gap in central Jersey, bewildering motorists.
Your mileage may vary, but the new link could improve your commuting, your sightseeing, your interstate commerce. Amazon’s 600,000-square-foot warehouse, just over the river in Florence Township, New Jersey, will be easily accessible from 95. An economic impact study released in 2000 (this project has been cooking for a while) suggested that by improving connections to regional markets, cutting travel costs, and enhancing “office-market” attractiveness, Bucks County could get a $400 million boost in business sales and 3,000 new jobs by 2025. That’s not even factoring in the potential for graft, kickbacks and patronage.
Meanwhile, as the interstate-building era at least technically ends (by virtue of how long it’s taken, finishing off I-95 is the last eligible project to use federal Interstate Completion Funds), it’s an opportunity to pull over for a moment and contemplate this road we’ve been on.
The Interstate Highway System was born during a booming postwar economy. The middle class was exploding, rock-and-roll was starting, and the Space Age was on the way. Cars back then may have been unsafe at any speed, but my God, google-search a picture of a harbor blue ’57 Chevy Bel Air. Endless possibility fed the public imagination.
The interstate system was birthed to modernize and unite the nation via fast, toll-free highways. The U.S. generously committed to pay 90 percent of states’ costs to build the new superhighways. The plan passed through the government with bipartisan enthusiasm. “As an engine of economic and social development, it was rivaled only by the G.I. bill; as a physical manifestation of the government’s ability to make change, it had no peer,” Jim Newton wrote in Eisenhower: The White House Years.
It was government that functioned as a benevolent Big Brother — “The federal government playing its role as it should, not overstepping the bounds of the states,” Dan McNichol says. “You could argue that the interstate system brought higher-paying jobs, health care and civil rights to the South. It aired out backwardness and bias. The interstate was the one road Colin Powell told me he could travel on when he was a young black man in the South, the one place he felt safe. He could stay at a Holiday Inn but not at a traditional Southern hotel.”
It was a time when people actually trusted the government to get things done. Fortune wrote in 1958 about the highway project: “Like better schools, it is regarded as a thoroughly good, nonpolitical program that everybody will support.”
Today, as the interstate project technically comes to a close, anyone might look in the rearview mirror wistfully, pondering how far we’ve traveled.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike came first. It was America’s original superhighway: two uninterrupted lanes in each direction, built for speed, with no cross streets or stoplights, limited access, and initially no posted speed limit. Designers of the Pennsylvania Turnpike got some of those ideas when they studied the Third Reich’s autobahn in Germany. It’s nice to have role models.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike opened on October 1, 1940, originally out west from Carlisle to Irwin, through abandoned railroad tunnels that crews had blasted through the Alleghenies. By 1954, it came east to the Delaware River. The state established the Turnpike Commission to support itself by collecting tolls, initially one cent per mile for passenger cars. (It’s now around 14 cents per mile.)
Eisenhower saw the Turnpike as a model for a national system, but he scrapped tolls, making the roads feel even more egalitarian. (The government decided to raise funds via gasoline and other transportation-related taxes.) Ike sold his network as the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 laid out a 13-year funding schedule.
The interstates, reversing the numbering system of old U.S. routes, began with number 5 out West, from Seattle to San Diego, and counted up to reach 95 along the Eastern Seaboard. East-west routes got even numbers, starting down South and counting up. Supposedly, it’s just a coincidence that the Schuylkill Expressway in Philly got to be Interstate 76 — it’s about midway between I-70 and I-80.
Interstate 95 arrived in the 1960s, amid occasional protests. Its relentless path through big cities tore up urban neighborhoods, displaced residents, and divided cities from their waterfronts. When it got to New Jersey, I-95 North was supposed to plow through bucolic towns like Hopewell. There, it finally ran into residents with enough clout (insert the emoji for money here) to turn it away. So it stopped.
For the past few decades, when you’d drive up 95 North into New Jersey, it vanished. You could keep going north, but suddenly and mind-bendingly, you were on I-295 South. That road veers south for about eight miles, feeds into I-195 below Trenton, and eventually rediscovers I-95 North as the New Jersey Turnpike.
“I’ve always heard it referred to as the longest U-turn in the United States,” Mike Phillips told me.
Over the years, drivers have found other inconvenient work-arounds for the gap in I-95. One has been to pull off 95 North at the PA 413 exit in Bristol and drive a few miles to a Turnpike entrance up old U.S. Route 13. This involves sitting at multiple traffic signals with exhaust-belching trucks doing the same and enjoying one of Bristol’s less bountiful commercial strips. (Even the Walmart closed.)
When the new interchange opens this year, a driver heading north on I-95 above Philadelphia will stay in the right lanes to remain on 95, curve around at full speed eastward onto a three-mile stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike that will be newly designated as 95, head over the Delaware River, and get on the New Jersey Turnpike, which carries 95 up to New York. Multiple minutes will be saved. What used to be called 95 above the Turnpike won’t be 95 anymore — it’s being demoted to beltway status as 295 East and West.
Southbound traffic from the Jersey Turnpike will be able to stay on 95 the same way, curling southward toward Philadelphia swiftly on a second new overpass structure. In both directions, these new connectors are called “flyovers” rather than ramps — there’s no need for exiting, stopping or slowing down.
Phillips, a burly, bearded structural engineer who grew up in King of Prussia, got the assignment to drive me around the project area, where construction began in 2009. I put on a hard hat and a neon green vest, and Phillips spent about three hours driving us up and down roads and into exclusive “construction entrance” zones that most people only dream about. He’s developed expertise in navigating his vehicle between tightly spaced Jersey barriers without scraping any paint.
“You don’t want to ding the Turnpike car,” he joked. “That’s another set of paperwork.”
Phillips gave me a lesson in how concrete dries, and on an unfinished portion of the southbound flyover, I stepped across endless rows of green rebar that I tried not to bend. We parked alongside a fancy new Turnpike toll plaza at Neshaminy Falls, behind the Parx Casino and racetrack. “On the other side of the fence is their horse manure pond,” Phillips said, and we talked about the years of environmental mitigation that this project has required.
The two new flyovers linking the Turnpike and I-95 actually are only Stage 1 in a three-phase project. If you’re doing the math at home, you realize that fully connecting two two-direction highways requires eight separate links. Six added low-speed ramps are coming, eventually allowing, for instance, a driver coming east on the Turnpike to go south on 95. That stage of the project has no start date, because it doesn’t have funding yet.
Why has it taken so long for all this to happen? Highway building, like highway driving, usually takes longer than the plan, with unpredictable delays. (The Blue Route gestated for three decades.) For this project, the environmental impact study alone took 10 years, examining 13 alternative routes and everything from housing to red-bellied turtles. So far, nine homes, 13 businesses and two churches have been displaced. A proposed bridge at the river meant considering waterfront issues and New Jersey. By the time the preliminary design was done, in 2008, Turnpike funds were lacking and the plan had to be split into three stages. It was all amid a relative absence of urgency. This connection is nice, but we’ve managed fine for years without it.
Finding money for infrastructure in 2018 isn’t an easy game. A lot of PennDOT work is funded by gasoline taxes. Good news: Pennsylvania has the country’s highest rate, 58 cents a gallon.
Work on the Turnpike/I-95 project has been split between about half federal funds and half from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, which raised $200 million through a program called EB-5. Via EB-5, wealthy foreigners can get green cards by investing $500,000 in a U.S. project that will create jobs. Most participants have been Chinese nationals. Yes, the greatest infrastructure undertaking in American history will finally be completed — with financing from China.
Seeking money for the six remaining highway connections, Bucks County commissioners chairman Robert Loughery this year attended an infrastructure summit with President Trump. Trump warmed up the room by saying, “We’re trying to build roads and fix bridges that are falling down. And we have a hard time getting the money. It’s crazy.”
When it was Loughery’s turn, he said, “Mr. President … we won the Super Bowl with the Philly Special. And I have a Philly Special for you when it comes to transportation projects.” He informed the President that all environmental reviews on the next phase of the I-95 project are done.
“That sounds good. You jumped to the head of the line,” Trump pronounced. Then the President heard the price tag of $515 million and added, “All right, get the price down a little bit,” and there was laughter.
The administration, meanwhile, has recommended getting rid of the ban on tolls on interstates. There are no known plans to add them to stretches of I-95 that are free today. But “Tolls are coming. It’s just a matter of when,” McNichol predicts.
Back atop the northbound flyover, on unspoiled road that will soon handle thousands of cars a day, I wondered aloud about the significance of (sort of) bringing the interstate-building era to a close. If we could go back in time and imagine the future, is this what the framers of the system envisioned? I tried to get Mike Phillips to be philosophical about it.
“Well,” he said, channeling a deeper back-to-the-future vibe than I needed, “we’re bound to the ground for at least the next 50 years. But in 100 years, maybe we won’t need roads anymore. Maybe that’s too philosophical?”
What about finishing up this piece of American history? Isn’t it sort of like carving a piece of Mount Rushmore?
“I guess engineers are very practical,” he said. “You get the job done. This one’s built, and you go up to the next one. And in 20 years, you come back and rebuild what you built 20 years ago.”
Published as “Highway 95 Revisited” in the July 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.