Will I-95 always be a rush-hour highway to hell?

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Jacqui Gilmore Stallworth can see I-95 from her house - but she has a backup route to work when the highway becomes clogged.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Jacqui Gilmore Stallworth can see I-95 from her house - but she has a backup route to work when the highway becomes clogged.
Posted: May 16, 2013

ON SUNDAY, May 5, Casey Cattie, 18, an aspiring country singer with a big-league voice, left her Chadds Ford, Delaware County, home in plenty of time to make her pregame sound check at Citizens Bank Park so she could sing "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch.

Packed into her car with her mom, dad, kid brother and boyfriend, the Unionville High senior became nervous when Route 322 merged into a bumper-to-bumper crawl on I-95 North.

Six hours earlier, a tractor-trailer had crashed and burned on the interstate in South Philly, littering the highway with pineapples, melons and bananas. I-95 North was still a parking lot.

By the time her car reached the Girard Point Bridge - three lanes of standstill traffic and a construction lane that is the final phase of a $75 million rehab - Cattie knew she wasn't going to make her sound check.

Heeding her parents' advice, she and her boyfriend, Trevor Bloomfield, "just got out of the car, hopped over the construction barrier and walked the entire bridge in the construction lane," Cattie said.

They walked through the I-95 Broad Street exit - which was closed to traffic because of the Broad Street Run - and hiked the rest of the 3 miles from their car to Citizens Bank Park.

"There were so many nerves in me, I wasn't even exhausted," said Cattie, who nailed "God Bless America" in the seventh inning as if she'd been hoofing to gigs all her life.

But for the 160,000 motorists living in Northeast Philadelphia and its suburbs who take I-95 to work but just don't have the legs to hike it, the chronically clogged highway is a twice-a-day rush-hour nightmare.

The annual cost to the region from rush-hour traffic jams is more than $3 billion, according to a 2012 report by the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute, which has measured congestion impact nationally since 1982.

The rush-hour jams cost individual commuters more than $1,000 a year, and cause the release of 1.5 billion pounds of excess carbon dioxide and the consumption of more than 75 million gallons of fuel, the report said.

In other words, it's all as ugly as it feels and even worse, it's going be this bad for years.

'Are you serious?'

Jacqui Gilmore Stallworth lives in Tacony, a couple of blocks from the I-95 Cottman Avenue interchange, and teaches graphic design at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, on South Broad Street.

"I can see I-95 from my house," she said, but that doesn't mean she can drive it.

"Every day, you don't know if it's going to take you 55 minutes to drive the 15-minute trip to work," she said.

"When you're stuck in I-95 traffic, you expect to see an accident, you expect to see carnage on the road, but you don't see anything that's causing it. And I'm thinking, 'Are you serious?' "

Here's what's serious:

At the Cottman Avenue interchange near Stallworth's home, PennDOT is now fully engaged in a $212.3 million project to rebuild and widen 1.4 miles of I-95 between Levick Street and Bleigh Avenue, replace seven structurally deficient highway bridges and build a new southbound on-ramp.

Construction is scheduled to end late in the summer of 2016 .

If Stallworth spends an extra 40 minutes a day going to work on I-95, times 181 school days a year, times three years, then by the time the Cottman Avenue project is finished, she will have wasted 362 hours - or 15 days - stuck in traffic.

And that's only the morning rush.

Adding to the monster jam, PennDOT also is rebuilding the Girard Avenue interchange, reconstructing and widening 3 miles of I-95 from Race Street to just south of Allegheny Avenue, and replacing I-95 bridges over Shackamaxon Street, Marlborough Street and Columbia Avenue.

Completion of the current interchange reconstruction is expected in 2015, but additional phases of the I-95 rebuild, which will end up costing a total of $1 billion, will continue into 2020.

So Stallworth, and tens of thousands of motorists in the same pickle, will be Soul Survivors living Gamble-Huff's "Expressway to Your Heart" - "much too crowded, so crowded" - for a long time.

Stallworth is stunned that gaper delays add to the jams at both the Cottman Avenue and Girard Avenue construction sites.

"I see the same cars every single morning," she said. "I know their license plates. I know their bumper stickers. And every morning, those same people are looking like, 'Oh! It's construction!'

"How do you not see this every morning? Why is this so amazing to you? Just drive! Just push the gas pedal and we can all go to work. But they don't. It's crazy."

Traffic starts coming to a halt around the Cottman Avenue interchange at 6:45 a.m. "So you zoom up the ramp and then get stuck, waiting to merge," she said. "I've got to be at school at 7:55. I leave my house at 7 every morning and just make it."

Then there are the tractor-trailers, Stallworth said, that get on I-95 South and almost immediately have to merge with jammed traffic to avoid being stuck in the exit-only lane.

"I've had a tractor-trailer cut me off," said Stallworth, who feels vulnerable in her compact Dodge Caliber. "I'm thinking, 'Really? You're like an 18-wheeler cutting me off?' I didn't want to meet my maker, so I let him do what he needed to do."

Stallworth's eye for the absurd extends to shoulder cowboys.

"I laugh at people who get upset and try to use the shoulder to make their own lane," she said. "You'll go about 5 feet and then you're going to hit a concrete divider. I watch them and wait for them to slam on their brakes. We don't have flying cars yet, people. We're all stuck in the same boat."

Tooth and nail

Irene Mosca, who manages Dr. Mark Krupnick's dental office on Torresdale Avenue in Mayfair, said she hasn't seen anything like this in her 50 years there.

"Our patients coming on I-95 South are all arriving late, in total disarray, shaken," Mosca said. "They're calling and telling me, 'I tried getting off at Cottman but I can't. Now what do I do?'

"I tell them to get off at the Academy exit and take Torresdale here. But once they go past Cottman, they're up a creek, automatically 20 minutes late, which makes all our appointments run late. It's a mess."

Will the current I-95 voyage of the damned ever morph into a highway to heaven?

Yes, said Chuck Davies, who oversees PennDOT's design unit.

Patience is needed, Davies said, because it will take many more years to rebuild the decades-old construction of that stretch of I-95. But it will be worth its price tag, he said.

"We will fix the congestion associated with lane drops," he vowed. "When you're in the right lane going down the highway, and it becomes an exit-only lane, you have to pull over to the left to stay on the main [road], which causes congestion."

At both the Cottman Avenue and Girard Avenue interchanges, PennDOT is widening I-95 from three to four lanes, and adding a fifth lane for entering and exiting the highway.

I-95 wasn't designed to carry more than 100,000 cars at the Girard and Cottman interchanges, Davies said, and the Philadelphia neighborhoods around those interchanges were never meant to become I-95 access ramps.

"Princeton Avenue has for decades been used as an approach to the highway on-ramp," Davies said. "There are residences there. There's an elementary school. We are taking that traffic to the industrial side of the highway, where it belongs."

The Princeton Avenue on-ramp to I-95 South is gone, replaced by one on State Road near Longshore Avenue.

At the Girard Avenue interchange, PennDOT will remove the northbound ramp near Penn Treaty Park, relocate it and make Richmond Street more green with trees, meadow grass and bicycle lanes.

In both reconstructions, Davies said, "We're trying to make the highway a better fit within an urban neighborhood."

Stallworth said she hopes the rebuilt I-95 also will be a better fit for her need to get to work on time.

Like a human GPS, Stallworth recited her off-highway route to work when I-95 is too clogged to get her there by 7:55 a.m.

"Richmond to Orthodox to Allegheny," Stallworth said, sounding like Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn back in the day, broadcasting a Phillies double play.

"Here's what's crazy about taking all those city streets all the way from Tacony to South Philly," she said, laughing. "Most days, it's faster than I-95."

Today on PhillyDailyNews.com: Do you have an I-95 nightmare story to share? Send it to us through our PhillyDailyNews.com tip form.


On Twitter: @DanGeringer

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