The project cost $14.9 million. Route 291 runs the length of Chester, just a few blocks from the Delaware River.
Chester will enjoy a respite from construction and detours for more than a year; then, in 2001, work will commence for two more years on the 3-mile, $18-million second phase of the project. That will extend the widening of 291 from Franklin Street to the Trainer Borough line on Chester's West End.
Before the second phase begins, the state has to buy 250 properties on the south side of the highway and clean up eight sites where petroleum leaks and spills from underground tanks have contaminated the soil, said Charles Metzger, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
Putting up with the detours for the last two years has been tough, said Edward G. Hornung, the financial manager of Wm. A. Schmidt and Sons Inc. The large metal-fabrication company is a few blocks from the construction zone.
``We have a lot of large trucks coming in and out all the time, and it was very difficult to give them directions,'' he said earlier this week. ``You would come in to work in the morning and by the afternoon, the detours would change. We would get calls from truckers saying, `I can't get there; what do I do now?' ''
Still, the aggravation was worth it, Hornung said. ``I think in the long run, it's going to help us a lot,'' he said. ``There's much better access now to I-95, the part of 291 east of Chester, and the airport, and things should get even better after the rest of the road is widened.''
Jay Bown of Industrial Investments Inc., which owns the Riverbridge Industrial Park on Route 291 in Chester, said he was optimistic that the widening would help bring new tenants to the 50-acre, 545,000-square-foot facility that once was a Ford Motor Co. manufacturing plant. ``We think it's going to make a big difference,'' he said. ``Its a fantastic first step toward getting companies back down on the city's riverfront.''
It was that kind of hoped-for response from businesses that prompted Chester officials to fight for more than four decades for funding to widen and straighten Route 291.
The project was proposed in 1955 by Chester planners, according to a state Transportation Department history. It was added to the state's highway improvement program in 1965 and funded in 1969. Then a series of construction delays and freezes ensued, as the city and state failed to come up with money for the project and environmental cleanup concerns made the job more expensive than anticipated.
After the project was postponed in early 1997 for at least the sixth time, a bipartisan coalition lobbied hard for its reinclusion and finally secured funding. Construction began that November.
David Sciocchetti, executive director of the Chester Economic Development Authority, said that the city is already reaping the benefits of the construction, even before the second phase begins.
``We're in discussion with three companies that want to buy properties that front on the already completed part of 291,'' he said yesterday. ``They all may not happen, but they're all very serious offers. There are a lot of companies that are looking for a combination of access to the airport and the industrial infrastructure that sites on Route 291 can offer. Now, we have the transportation backbone that we needed to bring them to Chester.''