Love Spruce Street Harbor Park? Then You'll Hate PennDOT's I-95 Expansion Plan

Earth to Planet PennDOT: We're actually trying to fix the waterfront

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My Instagram feed tells me last night's opening party for the new Spruce Street Harbor Park pop-up was a great time, and I'm looking forward to checking it out this evening. This type of thing is exactly what people increasingly want out of Philadelphia's waterfront, and the Delaware Waterfront Corporation has been working incredibly hard to give it to them, with well-designed parks like the Race Street Pier, and the beautiful forthcoming Pier 68 redesign.

It's an important issue for Philadelphia's competitiveness. Our peer cities are moving aggressively to deliver these kinds of amenities to their current and prospective residents. A walkable, bikeable waterfront with lots of nice park amenities and shopping is fast becoming par for the course in modern cities. Millennials - who will be dominating the location market in the near future - expect a livable waterfront when considering their location choices. Spruce Street Harbor Parks are the future; industrial uses and highways are the past.

Unfortunately, the news has yet to reach Planet PennDOT, where there's still a ridiculous plan in the works to widen I-95 by 60 feet in the Central Delaware area near Spruce, Race, and Washington - right in the area where the city's been fighting an uphill battle to reconnect the waterfront to the urban street grid:

PennDOT is not even arguing this needs to be done to accommodate more cars. Planet PennDOT is at least aware that vehicle miles traveled in the region have been declining. Their argument is that they need to do this nearly $500 million project (likely way more than that, in reality) in order to meet federal safety standards that the state of Pennsylvania has adopted. Those call for 10-foot shoulders, and eliminating dropped lanes where cars have to merge.

Naturally the option of repainting the highway surface to eliminate a travel lane and widen the shoulder seems not to have been considered, because it would reduce "levels of service" for cars. And years ago, much to the dismay of livability activists, Deputy Mayor for Transportation Rina Cutler foreclosed on the option of tearing down I-95 rather than making the repairs, letting PennDOT out of doing a real cost-benefit analysis of that scenario. 

One way to move this debate toward the livability position would be for advocates to commission an independent study of the costs and benefits of all the different options, including lane reductions and a full teardown. There's no reason for PennDOT's most-expensive position to win out when the other ideas haven't even been seriously studied. Especially when there's a good chance the benefits of the teardown could potentially exceed the costs. 

So how do we win this fight?

Well for one thing, it's not happening until 2026 at least, and they don't have the money budgeted for it. It's just a plan now, and the plan isn't even going to be done until 2018 at the earliest. That's a long way off. Activists basically just have to outlast the current project's advocates at PennDOT and at MOTU. Convince the state and city officials of the future that the project shouldn't happen and that we should do a teardown instead. Build a core group of 25-30 people willing to stay loosely engaged on this, who'll show up to speak against the project when there are meetings.

Advocates also win by engaging this debate on the level of values. PennDOT engineers will trot out all kinds of technical-sounding reasons why this needs to happen their way, but what it really comes down to is that they are operating under a different set of values - the ideology of the Highway Capacity Manual:

People who want the waterfront to become more like the Spruce Street Harbor Park, who want to see the waterfront become more integrated with the city street grid over time, and who don't want to see a 60-foot widening project destroy those goals, aren't going to win the argument with PennDOT by accepting the Modernist framework's goals. If we tear down I-95, that's going to interfere with basically all of the Modernist priorities. Speeds will slow. Cars won't move as conveniently. There will be some more congestion, at least in the short term. 

We win by asserting the primacy of urbanist goals over these goals. Connecting the city to the waterfront is more important than moving cars fast. Developing that area in a walkable, bikeable way is worth the trade-off of more congestion. It won't do to deny that these things will happen - we have to admit they'll happen, and then explain why that's ok, because of the enormous benefits we'll get from a more livable human-scaled waterfront.

Last Updated: Friday, 27 June 2014 @ 12.18
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jongeeting's picture Jon Geeting About the Author:

Jon Geeting is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist and policy researcher. His writing also appears at Next City, Primary Colors, and Keystone Politics, where he covers politics and elections, land use and transportation, and urban economic policy. He also writes a monthly Political Machine column at Philly City Paper.