Pennsylvania DOT Redesigns I-95 for Greater Efficiency
Planning for Interstate 95 along the east coast from Florida to Maine began in the 1930s. However, construction of its over 1,900 miles didn't actually begin until 1959 following the passage of President Eisenhower's federally funded Interstate Highway Program. The interesting history of this important roadway includes issues that range from land acquisition and community opposition, to design and roadway access plans, to federal litigation and cost increases. Collectively, these setbacks delayed completion of the 51-mile Pennsylvania section of the road until 1985.
Daily traffic volumes along a particularly congested 8-mile stretch north of Center City Philadelphia reach between 168,000 to 188,000 vehicles a day. Consequently, this aging commuter pathway takes an intense beating and the time had come for a multi-phase infrastructure initiative to improve and rebuild.
This section of I-95 parallels the Delaware River for its entire route, through the city of Philadelphia and its suburbs to the north and south. According to those associated with the rebuilding and improvement of I-95, this complicated corridor has a unique set of challenges to rebuild through dense urban neighborhoods. Over the next decade, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) will complete work on a total of 20 different projects, including five that will widen and improve this heavily traveled section between Interstate 676 and Cottman Avenue (PA 73) north of Center City Philadelphia.
PennDOT Spokesperson Eugene Blaum of the Engineering District 6 Office shared some specifics about this major undertaking. "The reconstruction of I-95 is extremely challenging in many ways as the department is rebuilding the highway near residential neighborhoods and maintaining six open lanes of traffic along this critical transportation corridor." This section of I-95 links Pennsylvania's most populous city with a tri-state metropolitan region and the entire east coast, while encompassing an array of land uses, neighborhoods and transportation facilities. He also points to I-95 as a critical intermodal road, linking transportation facilities including ports and airports, local fixed-route transit lines and services, regional and national passenger and freight rail, local residential streets and major arterials. "Anything that affects the flow of traffic on I-95 has an impact on mobility in the region," says Blaum
The project includes five contracts that are currently in the construction phase (see accompanying infographic). Sections GR1, 2 and 3 at the Girard Avenue Interchange; Section CP2 at the I-95/Cottman Avenue Interchange; and Section BR0 at the interchange with the Betsy Ross Bridge and Aramingo Avenue.
I-95 Portfolio Manager Elaine Elbich explains the main reasons for the improvement project include infrastructure updates, bridge conditions, roadway conditions and drainage repair. Fifty percent of I-95 is elevated between Interstate 676 and Cottman Avenue (Route 73), going through the heart of Philadelphia neighborhoods. "Most conditions are very tight," notes Elbich, "so we are trying to consolidate the points of access to area streets, improve shoulder widths, and upgrade interchanges and their entrance and exit ramps." She emphasized the importance of minimizing conflict points with the local street network.
Technology Assists with Project
For first time in Pennsylvania, this project is using Clear Noise Walls at the Girard Avenue interchange. "This innovative design will provide noise abatement while preserving views of the city from the highway and residential properties," says Elbich.
The team recognizes the importance of maintaining the integrity of the environment and the surrounding neighborhoods. "To minimize disturbances to the neighborhoods, we are using an International Construction Equipment Vibratory Hammer to help with noise levels," notes PennDOT Senior Assistant Construction Engineer Harold Windisch. "Previously we used a hydraulic hammer." To help alleviate traffic congestion, a jack and bore technique (boring underneath to place casing) is being used to install sub-surface drainage culverts underneath I-95. In addition, for new ramp construction, PennDOT is utilizing column support embankment. This type of support for earth embankment takes the place of pile supported slabs, and it uses lightweight fills instead of driving piles.
According to Elbich, "A major point of emphasis has been the use of the Vehicle Probe Project (VPP) Suite, which was developed by the I-95 Corridor Coalition in conjunction with the University of Maryland Center for Advanced Transportation Technology (CATT) Laboratory." PennDOT has access to the VPP Suite tools as a member of the I-95 Corridor Coalition, and uses the data to monitor operations in real-time, provide traveler information to the public, assist with project planning, and evaluate the performance of the highway network. The tool has been especially useful for monitoring the changes in travel conditions for major construction projects such as the I-95 reconstruction work.
Coordination is Key
"Within this 8-mile long corridor on I-95, we have another 15 construction projects over the next 10 years," notes Elbich. Coordinating such a large number of projects requires keen management skills and systems. "We work with the city, community and neighborhood groups, emergency service responders, all utilities including electric, water and sewer, as well as service providers like Verizon, Conrail, Amtrak and SEPTA (Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority), plus local businesses along the corridor."
PennDOT Assistant District Executive for Design Chuck Davies says, "Some improvements need to be made off the mainline highway and on city surface streets. We work closely with the local metropolitan planning organization (Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission) to keep all our improvements consistent with local planning goals and initiatives." One particular challenge was locating a 93-inch water line at the I-95 Cottman Avenue interchange, serving 500,000 people in the Northeast section of the city.
"Keep in mind, we are doing all we can to complete these projects while keeping I-95 as a viable artery throughout the region," comments Blaum. "This includes maintaining three travel lanes in each direction within the construction areas." To assist travelers, PennDOT has over 300 highway cameras in the five-county Philadelphia region, many of those along I-95, that play a critical role in helping PennDOT staff identify incidents on major highways and relay information to the public. Along with providing traveler information on electronic highway message boards, 511PA.com is a valuable service that provides traffic delay warnings, weather forecasts, traffic speed information and access to highway cameras.
PennDOT uses several tools to provide I-95 project information. "The project website - 95Revive.com - is an invaluable resource for information and project updates," Blaum said. "We also placed project posters with QR codes on site and utilize social media by disseminating project information through the 511PAPhilly Twitter page."
As for the construction taking place on I-95, Windisch said the work is mostly on schedule and on budget.
Preserving the Environment and History of the Area
The economic impact of the project certainly affects the entire metropolitan area, but improving the viability of the underside of I-95 area is also critical. "With the proximity of houses to I-95, we've had a lot of interaction with residents." says Elbich. "From neighborhood associations to community development groups and individuals, we are sensitive to all aspects of the environment in these residential areas." To that point, a Sustainable Action Committee was created as part of the overall project.
Additionally, the I-95 improvement program participates in Green 2015, an effort of the City of Philadelphia. "As an example, we are working closely with the water department to plant trees and vegetation to enhance storm water areas, following strict requirements regarding water quality," says Elbich.
Another initiative known as Digging 95 documents PennDOT's archaeology efforts in historic districts to preserve artifacts that have been unearthed during the infrastructure improvement process. According to Elbich, "After finding many Native American artifacts along the Delaware River waterfront prior to the start of construction, we work with many organizations to share information about what we have recovered." During development of the original highway in the 1960's and 70's, many buildings were demolished and basements filled in. "There is a whole glassworks factory buried underneath this area from which artifacts were unearthed," shares Elbich.
PennDOT's Interstate Management Program is financing the project, with 80 to 90 percent federal dollars and the remainder coming from the state. Funding also is provided by the regional metropolitan planning organization. Construction bids are submitted by pre-qualified contractors and contracts are awarded based on the successful low bid.