“We’re going to get this job done as quickly as possible.”
That was the repeated refrain from Gov. Josh Shapiro at a press conference Wednesday as the governor was grilled over how long the repair of Philadelphia’s collapsed I-95 overpass would take.
At an appearance with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg Tuesday, state officials pledged they would have a timeline for the reopening of the highway at Wednesday’s presser. But they didn’t, leaving Shapiro to deftly dodge nearly half a dozen pointed questions about the reopening date. The Democratic governor refused to even hazard a “ballpark” guess.
“I want to get this road reopened as quickly as possible,” he said at one point.
Meanwhile, radio talk host Hugh Hewitt threw down an infrastructure gauntlet: “When the I-10 fell down during [the] Northridge earthquake, then California Governor Pete Wilson got it up and reopened in 3 months,” Hewitt said on Tuesday. “How will [Shapiro] do against that benchmark with his repair of the I-95 in Philly?”
Los Angeles saw a portion of its Santa Monica Freeway collapse after the historic Northridge Earthquake in 1994. Officials had originally projected that the project would take five months to complete. California officials made it happen in three.
Robert Poole, the director of transportation policy at the libertarian Reason Foundation, remembers the rapidity with which state officials moved to bring about that re-opening.
“Caltrans was able to quickly hire a construction contractor who worked 24/7 to replace the collapsed bridge(s),” he said. “I lived in Los Angeles then, and followed the process fairly closely.”
A major factor spurring the successful California repair was likely Gov. Pete Wilson’s enticing incentive scheme: The governor offered construction company C.C. Meyers a $200,000 bonus for every day the work finished ahead of schedule, leading Meyers to launch a 24/7 repair schedule that included the use of a private locomotive to transport materials directly from Texas.
“I love to do things, get it done, and let people take advantage of it,” Meyers said in a 2014 interview.
Wilson also worked to suspend normal red-tape considerations such as environmental reports and public hearings, clearing the way for a rapid repair process that bypassed the usual pits where public works projects often get bogged down.
California is not the only state to have pulled off such a quick major turnaround. Atlanta in 2017 saw the collapse of part of I-85 running through the city. That stretch of road was repaired and re-opened in just 43 days, though officials had initially estimated it would take up to six months.
Like California, government officials in Georgia slashed red tape and offered hefty incentives for contractors working on the job.
The question is whether Pennsylvania politics in 2023 allow the Shapiro administration take similar actions? Or will interest groups in the Democratic Party’s coalition, such as environmental activists and organized labor, narrow Shapiro’s options.
“When Pennsylvanians are sleeping in the middle of the night, our crews will be rebuilding I-95,” Shapiro said. “When you take a day off to go to the shore, they’ll be working. From the moment demolition is done, we will be working 24/7 around the clock to get this done.”
But he would not commit toa. date.
Reached for comment, a spokesman for the Shapiro administration could also offer no ballpark estimate of repair times. The administration, he said, was looking closely at the experiences of other cities that repaired similar highway disasters, with the governor’s office committed to cutting any red tape that could impede the work process.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation did not respond to requests for comment. PennDOT said on its website that Shapiro’s earlier disaster declaration would help “expedite this process and to cut through the red tape,” though it too did not offer any concrete dates or projections.
Dr. Abi Aghayere, a professor of structural engineering at Drexel University, estimated the project could take a maximum of six months, possibly less.
“Based on recent information from a steel fabricator, the welded steel plate girder option (due to supply and manufacturing lead times) would likely take approximately 6 months maximum to complete,” he said. A second option of using “precast prestressed concrete” would likely take about as much time, he said, though “the time could be shortened if they follow the same expedited process that was used for the Fern Hollow bridge.
“PennDOT has the option of simply replacing the bridge with new welded steel plate girders or using precast prestressed concrete Pennsylvania Bulb-tee beams,” Aghayere said, pointing to that method’s having been used to repair the Fern Hollow Bridge at Pittsburgh after it collapsed in 2022.
While he wouldn’t give reporters a date, Shapiro did offer Delaware Valley residents a way to track the progress of the critical repairs: An Internet livestream.
The webcam will allow locals to view the repairs as they happen. Shapiro said the blurry footage would give residents “a sense of timing as we move forward.”
However long it takes.