At a press conference punctuated — and sometimes drowned out — by the sound of jackhammers, state officials gathered at the site of the I-95 collapse Tuesday and said they would announce Wednesday when they expect the vital highway to reopen.
They were joined by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who pledged “every resource that is needed will be made available” to repair the bridge as quickly as possible.
A portion of the interstate collapsed into rubble after an out-of-control tanker truck hauling gasoline crashed on an off-ramp and burst into flames. Buttigieg toured the site with PennDOT Secretary Mike Carroll, SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards, and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney.
“This tragic crash is having an outsize impact on commuters and goods moving up and down the I-95 corridor,” said Buttigieg. “It’s a key artery for the movement of people and goods. That’s why it’s important to get this restored quickly. The only thing that’s even more important than restoring this quickly is ensuring it’s restored safely. And I can’t say enough good things about the coordination I see here on the ground between first responders, state officials, and our own federal personnel to make sure that happens.”
He pointed out first responders were directing traffic around detours and that SEPTA had “stepped up” to add extra trains.
Carroll and Gov. Josh Shapiro will hold an event Wednesday announcing when I-95 will reopen.
“We’re going to try and do it as quickly as we can,” he said.
Shapiro declared an emergency on Monday, freeing up $7 million in state funds to start the demolition and reconstruction process.
The I-95 closure is creating “a serious strain” on the region’s transportation system,” said Richards, not just on the interstate but on secondary roads and also for SEPTA. She listed all the steps SEPTA has taken to help commuters, with extra trains in the morning and evening, more cars on those trains, and free parking in the SEPTA lots.
“As you all know, Philadelphia is a resilient city,” she said. SEPTA officials are analyzing performance and ridership to see if more improvements should be made “to help those who usually drive.”
Speaking to reporters, Buttigieg said, “What a lot of people don’t always see behind those inflation numbers is the importance of our supply chains. Part of the cost of everything we buy in the store is shipment, and if a route isn’t disrupted or if it’s longer or trucks have to wait, that finds its way into the cost of goods.”
“At the end of the day, there’s no substitute for I-95 being up and running. And that’s the goal everybody’s working toward.”
An average of 160,000 vehicles roll through Philadelphia on I-95 daily, and 8 percent of those vehicles are trucks.
“That is a lot of America’s GDP moving along that road every single day,” he said.
“The trucks will have to take longer and more costly routes to get where they’re going,” he said. But truck drivers are creative and will adapt. He said DOT is working with Google and Waze to optimize alternate routes through their directional services.
Buttigieg added that the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating how the accident happened.
“This was an enormously intense fire underneath a structure that, my understanding is, is relatively new in its construction,” said Buttigieg. “And the result of that much heat, that much fuel burning, is, of course, what compromised the structure.”
Asked about increasing truck safety regulations, he said that while the nation has been paying attention to air and railroad safety, “it has been harder to get people focused on roadway safety, an issue that claims 40,000 lives a year.”
State Police Capt. Gerard McShea declined to confirm whether media reports of the truck driver’s name who died in the fiery crash are correct. Later Tuesday, James Garrow, the Philadelphia Department of Health spokesman, said, the body found in the remains of the tanker truck was that of Nathan Moody. His cause of death was blunt trauma to the head, inhalation and thermal injuries. The coroner found the manner of death to be an accident.
McShea said police are analyzing a video of the crash circulating on social media, which showed the truck getting off the northbound ramp toward Cottman Avenue from I-95 and an explosion afterward.
The exit and underpass are not usually places where “we often respond to collisions,” he said.
Carroll said the contractor working at the site had already been working nearby on I-95 on a different project, so it made sense to hire that company, and no bid was needed for the emergency work. As for an incentive to rebuild the roadway quickly, he said, “We’re already working 24/7.”
“If there is anything we can do to be helpful, we stand ready to assist,” said Buttigieg.