Urban highways are changing around the world in order to meet 21st century needs. And now Philadelphia is joining in on the conversation.
City planners, officials and residents attended a discussion forum titled, “Reimaging Urban Highways,” on Thursday night at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. The forum centered on the question of whether Philadelphia will choose to rebuild or reimage the three-mile stretch of Interstate-95, which divides the city from the Delaware River waterfront, in the near future.
Executive Director Diana Lind of Next American City was on hand to explain what Philadelphia should think about before rebuilding 51 miles of I-95 that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has scheduled for construction. The Next American City is a non-profit based in Philadelphia that advocates socially and environmentally sustainable economic growth in the nation’s cities.
“In this future where let’s just say we don’t rebuild I-95, there’s a lot of other options for how we can manage our traffic,” Lind said.
PennDOT plans to reconstruct the sections of I-95 between the Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman bridges toward the final stages of its highway renewal project by around 2026.
“I think what is most exciting about the potential for I-95 is to really rethink the region’s transportation options,” Lind said. “Instead of saying, ‘We’re going to focus on having a car-centered transportation system’ that we might actually use this as a time to say this is the time to invest in light rail.”
Lind added that those in attendance at the forum, who signed up for Next American City’s mailing list, would be sent a petition directed toward PennDOT next week.
Laura Scheerer, a local resident of Logan Square, said she would be in favor of diminishing the impact of I-95 on nearby neighborhoods along the three-mile stretch.
“I want the city itself more connected to the [Delaware River] waterfront and I think more development will come,” Scheerer said. “It would only make our city more of a gem.”
Panelists at the event came from various U.S. cities that recently underwent change with their highway systems. The speakers included Ashwin Balakrishnan, coordinator of the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance; Thomas Deller, director of the planning and development department in Providence, R.I.; and Peter Park, planning director of the cities of Milwaukee and Denver.
Andrew Stober, the chief of staff of the mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities of Philadelphia, provided a representation of a city official and Aaron Naparstek, the founder of StreetsBlog.org, moderated the forum.
Stober said that the city transportation office has evaluated the existing infrastructure in Philadelphia and how it can create a transformative project with regards to I-95.
“This is a real challenge for us,” Stober said. “This whole idea of can I-95 be replaced with a boulevard or would it need major infrastructure to substitute for it.”
During the question and answer part of the forum, some citizens asked where the funding for the rebuilding project of I-95 would come from.
“When you make big investments in infrastructure, it has impacts that go well beyond the neighborhoods where those are made,” Stober said. “We have to think about what are the economic justice and economic development impacts of those investments beyond just the immediate area.”
“[Highways] are not going to last forever,” Park added. “Something is going to have to be done about them at some point.”
The forum concluded with discussions about ways citizens can get involved with the planning phases of the I-95 reconstruction project.
“There’s always something gained and something lost when it comes to these types of discussions,” said Daniel Bang said, a public health graduate student at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. “But having this type of discussion is good because you give power back to communities.”