I-95 shut down for emergency repairs

Posted: March 18, 2008

"Stay off 95! Use mass transit if you can. And if you have to use the interstate, give yourself an extra hour or so to get to where you're going," said PennDot spokesman Gene Blaum, reacting to the repair emergency that forced the closure of an eight-exit section of the highway between Girard Avenue and the Betsy Ross Bridge that snarled detours all day and all night.

And it will be the same tomorrow.

As motorists braced for today's nasty commute, PennDot secretary Allen D. Bielher held out hope that the highway could be reopened by Wednesday night after crews underpin the affected section.

Biehler said crews are waiting for parts for the four support towers to come from Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Coatesville tonight.

The towers, which can handle a load of up to two million pounds, will be placed around the damaged column, which was discovered on a routine inspection.

Drivers said traffic on alternative routes, including Roosevelt Boulevard, was extremely heavy.

For police assigned to the area, much of the work involved keeping cars moving and drivers' tempers under control.

"It takes people a certain amount of time to adjust their plans and their temperament," said Inspector L.B. Rebstock, commander of the traffic and park division.

In the 2400 block of north Richmond St., near the cracked pillar, pedestrians wandered by to have a look and some took photos with their cell phone cameras. Officials on hand included Gov. Rendell.

Rendell said he was in Philadelphia on unrelated business but wanted to see the damage. Inspecting the jagged crack that officials say was probably caused by road salt and freezing water, he said it highlighted overall problems with the nation's deteriorating infrastructure: "You are going to see more and more of it," he said. "It's old."

Joe Petaccio, 37, of Churchville, Buck County, co-owns J.P. Tee's, a T-shirt shop across the street.

"Normally, it takes me 25 minutes to get to work. Today it took me an hour and a half. I use 95 every day," he said. "Now I'm stuck with side streets."

Petaccio contemplated spending the night in the city in order to to avoid Wednesday's commute.

Leann Freer, 47, of Port Richmond, was walking on Richmond Street.

"I take buses, but they're getting tied up in the traffic. This is bad for commuters and bad for people in the neighborhood. The neighborhood's been turned into a highway," she said. "But it's better to fix this now than have a tragedy in the future."

The interstate was shut down before midnight Monday. Until further noticed, both northbound and southbound Interstate traffic will be detoured onto city streets creating nightmares for commuters and neighborhood residents.

Northbound lanes of I-95 were closed from Girard to Castor Avenues. Southbound traffic was shut off from the Betsy Ross Bridge/Aramingo Avenue exit to Girard Avenue.

Access from Center City to northbound I-95 was blocked off on the Vine Street Expressway sending all traffic south.

Work began at 7 a.m. to build a support structure that will take the weight off the column.

Rebar - exposed, twisted and rusted - could be seen this morning where the concrete had been shorn away from the pillar. It is one of three 15-foot-high concrete columns that support the interstate where it runs over Richmond Street between Ann and Cambria Streets.

Though the highway is in no danger of imminent collapse, PennDot officials said it was best to "err on the side of caution" and shut the roadway.The most highly trafficked highway on the East Coast, the section of I-95 that passes through the city was built in the 1960s and carries about 190,000 vehicles a day, a PennDot spokesman said.

If the column were to completely crumble the highway would still be supported by nearby pillars, said Lester Taoso, a PennDot executive. "But you might get a sag in the roadway in both the north and southbound lanes," he said this morning.

Inspectors first noticed the crack in October when the fissure was a half-inch wide and 4-feet long, Taoso said earlier today. It had been scheduled to be repaired later this year.

Taoso said that crack had widened during the winter months because water had seeped in and frozen.

"Nature is a powerful thing," he said.

Inspectors have found cracks in several other columns, Taoso said, "but not quite as bad as this."

Repairing the column may cost as much as a quarter million dollars, Taoso said.

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Several on-ramps leading to I-95 in the city were blocked off Tuesday by PennDot trucks. Access has been restricted at Washington Avenue, Race Street and Girard Avenue.

PennDot suggested several alternate routes including U.S. 1, I-676, and the New Jersey Turnpike and I-295.

The section of the interstate that passes over Port Richmond has been shut down before, causing snarls that lasted for months.

Less than a mile from the crumbling column, arsonists set ablaze an illegal tire dump under I-95 at Schiller Street. The eight-alarm fire in March 1996 closed the interstate for a week. Reconstruction of the roadway took four months and cost $6 million.

Later that year, a section of I-95 south of Philadelphia was crippled when a tractor-trailer carrying gasoline crashed May 23 in Chester. Two motorists were killed.

The intense heat scorched the roadway and twisted the steel girders supporting the interstate where it crosses the Chester Creek. Repairs took more than a month.

The nation's aging interstate system came under increased scrutiny last year after a disaster in the Midwest. In August, a section of Interstate 35 in Minnesota collapsed into the Mississippi river, killing 13 people and injuring 145.


Contact staff writer Sam Wood at 215-854-2796 or at samwood@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Andrew Maykuth contributed to this report.

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