The I-95 Rebuild Was Local Politics at Its Best

Democrats at all levels of government ensured that we got back on the road fast after tragedy struck. Can we muster that same energy for our public schools and other big, urgent city issues?

i-95 rebuild philadelphia

Governor Josh Shapiro and Mayor Jim Kenney walk to speak to members of the media near a collapsed portion of I-95. / Photograph by Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

Here’s something you don’t hear often: Politicians recently did something remarkable at rapid speed, with efficiency and determination.

The astounding reopening of I-95 in Northeast Philly went off without a hitch, and traffic is flowing once more following two weeks of closure sparked by a truck that tragically caught fire and caused a section of highway to collapse. Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro put on a master class of extreme competence that we’re frankly not used to in local politics.

Seamless coordination with city, state and federal governments? Shapiro did that without a hiccup. Empowering the Philadelphia building trades to take on mission impossible and do so faster than expected? Shapiro, President Biden, and Steven Starr’s culinary generosity combined to enable that. Raising the morale of the Commonwealth by voluntarily implementing an impressive accountability metric? Give them all the props for hosting a 24/7 livestream of the entire ordeal.

“They said it couldn’t be done,” Shapiro boldly declared during a press conference held on the rebuilt portion of the highway. “And today, all of us here together proved them wrong. We rebuilt I-95 in just 12 days.”

Shapiro did the damn thing. He got shit done. There’s nothing anyone can say to contest that.

But with the recent celebration over this monumental achievement, I can’t help but wonder how other matters that are just as complicated as (or less complicated than) repairing I-95 still haven’t been addressed. Moments like this make me go, “Well, damn, if government can step up and fix a major highway in less than two weeks, what else could they accomplish if they applied the same vigor?”

In Philly, our public schools are still dealing with asbestos. Yes, that’s right — many of our children go to school in buildings containing a known carcinogen that can cause fatal diseases and cancers. Again: Our school children are breathing asbestos! The lives of our teachers and children are put at risk when they’re exposed to this harmful substance that can cause lung cancer and/or mesothelioma.

This past school year alone saw the closing of six schools due to exposure. These students were required to return to online schooling or relocate to other school buildings, disrupting their academics. Even worse, the school district got backed up on its federal requirement to perform 50 asbestos inspections a month and had to hire outside help.

Surely, with some focused and concerted effort, our elected officials at the city and state levels could at the very least speed up the inspection process. But what if instead of remediating buildings that contain asbestos, they could figure out how to build new schools? The average public school in Philadelphia is over 70 years old — which means it’s pretty likely to contain asbestos. The lack of urgency around what the school district has described as a “facilities crisis” is unacceptable. Just like with I-95, we should set big, ambitious goals — rebuilding schools rather than simply patching them up — and then do the thing they’ve said can’t be done.

The same can be said for the dragging of feet on confronting food insecurity in our city. A maddening fact: Nearly 250,000 people living in Philly struggle to put food on their tables. It’s a consequence of our being the poorest big city in America. There’s more than enough food to feed every Philadelphian, and there’s no way our elected officials couldn’t better coordinate resources with food pantries and social services to ensure that no family in this city has to go hungry. President Biden has already made it a goal to end hunger in America by 2030. Philadelphia can definitely speed up that timeline in our own backyard with the same determination with which our fired-up governor and his loyal surrogates approached I-95.

And then there’s the open-air drug market in Kensington. I repeat: There’s an open-air drug market in Kensington! There is no excuse for this public waste and moral decay to continue in an area that’s still home to many hardworking families who deserve better. We’ve heard the pledges and campaign promises made by elected officials for years. What will it take to actually get things moving? There are hundreds of addiction-afflicted individuals occupying a community littered with crime, discarded infected needles, chronic pollution, and depression. Why does that sentence not jar us into action?

Our elected officials just showed us how they can rise to the occasion in a crisis. Many of our longtime problems can be solved — we just need to stop cherry-picking the crises.