Northeast Extension project a year behind schedule. But why?

Dec. 19 marks the 21st anniversary of the Blue Route. Here, northbound traffic on the Blue Route at the Conshohocken curve and interchange with I 76. Conshohocken is in the background. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)
Dec. 19 marks the 21st anniversary of the Blue Route. Here, northbound traffic on the Blue Route at the Conshohocken curve and interchange with I 76. Conshohocken is in the background. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer) (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 16, 2012

The $151 million project to widen six miles of the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Montgomery County has fallen a year behind schedule, but why is a matter of debate.

The Turnpike Commission and its contractor, Walsh Construction of Canonsburg, Pa., blame each other for turning the three-year project into a four-year project, and the dispute may soon end up in court.

Meanwhile, residents who live near the six-mile-long construction zone between the Lansdale and Mid-County exits are fuming over endless construction disruptions.

"I'm getting a lot of complaints about Walsh Construction," said State Rep. Kate Harper (R., Montgomery), whose district is bisected by the Northeast Extension.

She said area residents are upset about noise and bright lights from the construction zone, where much of the work is being done at night.

"I don't know why they're taking so long. . . . We need to get it done," Harper said.

The section of I-476 is the most-heavily traveled four-lane stretch of the turnpike in the state. About 65,500 vehicles a day travel it.

The $151 million contract to widen the turnpike to six lanes between the Mid-County exit and Berks Road, about five miles south of the Lansdale exit, was awarded to Walsh on Dec. 21, 2010. Construction began in March 2011. The project was supposed to be finished in late 2013.

The cost has since gone up by $2.5 million, for the purchase of additional land adjacent to the work zone.

And the projected completion date?

"Fall 2014," says the most recent update on the Turnpike Commission's project website.

Turnpike officials "believe the delay is largely a result of two issues that have arisen during construction," turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said Friday.

One involves temporary supports built during construction to reinforce the travel lanes. The other involves delays in obtaining permission from a railroad to rebuild a bridge that carries turnpike traffic over a rail line.

The turnpike and Walsh apparently do not agree on who is responsible for the delays and what penalties can be assessed because of the holdup. Like most highway contracts, the turnpike contract requires the contractor to pay the commission for delays in completing the job, in this case $5,765 per day.

Jessica Garcia, project manager for Walsh, said only that "we have some outstanding issues with the turnpike. . . . We don't feel like it's our fault." She referred questions to the Turnpike Commission.

James Au, construction project manager for construction management firm McTish, Kunkel & Associates, likewise referred all questions to DeFebo.

The dispute may soon be a legal battle. Walsh has told turnpike officials it plans to file a legal claim against the turnpike, though the exact nature of the claim is unclear.

The widening of the southern end of the Northeast Extension is part of a plan to widen the highway as far north as the Lansdale exit. That work was supposed to start in 2014 and be completed in late 2016, but the current delays likely will postpone that project, too.

The southern end of the Northeast Extension serves Philadelphia-area commuters as well as long-haul truckers and travelers bound for the Poconos.

The road opened in 1955. Its antiquated design, with narrow shoulders and concrete barriers in the median, make it "unsafe at rush hour," said Harper.

"If you have a problem on the road, there's nowhere to go," she said.

She said area residents have endured related construction on local streets and bridges, as well as the turnpike itself, for many years.

"It's been in the making for a long time," she said. "We need to get it done."


Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com

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