June 12, 2023

Philly-area trucking comes to grips with monthslong closure of I-95


With 7 miles of a key interstate in the Northeast likely to be offline for months following a fire on Sunday, trucking officials cautiously took stock Monday of how service might be impacted.

Trucking officials contacted by FreightWaves about the closing of part of Interstate 95 in northeast Philadelphia were reluctant to do two things: go on the record about their views or make a definitive prediction of what might occur.

The facts on the ground got grimmer Monday with the discovery of the remains of the driver whose fuel-carrying truck caught fire beneath an overpass early Sunday morning in an area of Philadelphia known as Tacony. The fire collapsed the northbound lanes and did significant structural damage to the southbound lanes, eliminating any chance that limited service could resume soon on half of the interstate.

The estimate of the closure and repairs lasting months came from Gov. Josh Shapiro and prompted discussion on Twitter about whether Pennsylvania would need more time than was needed to reconstruct a similar bridge after a fire and collapse in Atlanta. That 2017 incident saw the bridge rebuilt in six weeks.

But as trucking companies figured out how to get around the closure, the question of waiving tolls on other roads arose.

One option for north/south traffic looking to avoid I-95 in Philadelphia: Head west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. That idea has the interest of Rebecca Oyler, president of the Pennsylvania Motor Trucking Association (PMTA).

Oyler, in an interview with FreightWaves, said the question a driver would have about going farther west is the balance between costs in terms of money and time of staying close to 95 or heading farther out to roads such as Interstate 81 — getting there via the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which carries the designation of Interstate 76.

“Our members are already planning on avoiding the area,” Oyler said of Philadelphia. While the state has recommended the one detour route, she said the PMTA is awaiting recommendations on what she called the “golden detour.”

That’s where a toll waiver would come into play.

“One thing we are looking into is whether there is an ability to use the Pennsylvania Turnpike and whether there’s any legislative authority there to waive tolls,” Oyler said. She added that such a waiver would probably need legislative authority and couldn’t just come from the administration of Pennsyvlania Gov. Josh Shapiro.

Another possibility: an hours-of-service waiver. Oyler said that issue had come up in her discussions with PMTA members and officers but only on a preliminary level.

There appear to be only three state waivers in effect at present. One of them is not on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration page that lists waivers: a North Dakota waiver for the transport of fertilizers and other “agricultural inputs” that was recently signed by the state’s governor, Doug Burgum. 

The FMCSA page also lists a fuel waiver for South Dakota and a waiver for Florida that was due to expire Monday related to the enormous rains the Broward County area received in April. Governors do have the ability to suspend HOS rules for specific purposes and for limited periods of time. 

Kristen Scudder, the freight manager for the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, said she saw I-95 through Philadelphia as more of a “primary connection for Philadelphia industry to reach the national freight network” rather than a key truck route for Atlantic seaboard traffic.

“There’s a lot of industry and freight in that corridor,” she said of where 95 runs through Philadelphia, past the port and the city’s airport. 

Her estimate is that 150,000 to 160,000 vehicles per day travel the stretch of highway that is closed and about 9% of those are trucks.

The state’s official recommendation for drivers heading south on 95 is to exit the highway at the exit for Route 63 West, known locally as Woodhaven Road, head north to U.S. Highway 1, head south there to Interstate 76 east — the notorious Schuylkill Expressway, long considered one of Philadelphia’s most congested — and then to Interstate 676 east before reentering I-95. For northbound travelers, the recommendation is to use the same roads in reverse.

Map: Josh Roden, FreightWaves

Despite the role that I-95 plays as a major north-south route for passenger and truck traffic between Miami and Maine, the history of 95 in New Jersey and Pennsylvania means that trucks going between locations north and south of the City of Brotherly Love do not need to come close to the heavily populated Center City neighborhood. But it might be cheaper to do so. What’s not measurable is how much of that cost-reducing routing has been occuring.

Interstate 95 has what amounts to a gap in New Jersey near Princeton, as local residents during the planning of the interstate system successfully fought its construction through that area. The end result is that travel on 95 from north to south and vice versa is often completed via the New Jersey Turnpike, which does not actually have the designation of Interstate 95 south of Exit 7. In and around Philadelphia, access to the “resumption” of I-95 is through Interstate 195, which is accessed off the turnpike at Exit 7, and then on to 295 near Trenton, New Jersey.

But the problem — another quirk in the system — is that there is no direct connection from 295 onto Interstate 95. As noted by FreightWaves Social Media Content Creator Justin Martin — a former truck driver who often plied the roads between New Jersey and Pennsylvania — a driver can access 95 from 295 only indirectly, via local roads between the two.

The end result, though, is that I-95 heading south can ultimately be accessed on the New Jersey side, convoluted though it might be. But the driver would reap the benefits of avoiding New Jersey Turnpike tolls south of Exit 7, and would cross the Delaware without paying a toll on the Delaware Memorial Bridge. The same savings could be earned in reverse for northbound drivers.

The question, then, is how much of that convoluted 195/295/95 truck traffic was taking place historically, and whether a lot of traffic will now get pushed over to the New Jersey side of the river, either onto the turnpike or onto the 195/295 connection. Both of those options do involve a toll to cross the twin-span Delaware Memorial Bridge.

In a brief text to FreightWaves, John Luciani, the head of LTL operations at Northeast-based LTL carrier A. Duie Pyle, said that given the location of the collapse, “there is no impact to our linehaul or dedicated operations and very limited impact to our West Chester pickup and delivery operations” at its service center there. The West Chester facility is roughly 40 miles from Tacony.

Another LTL source who requested anonymity said the source’s company was “still in the early stages of assessing the extent of impact of the collapse. Our assessment is that the collapse is likely to have a significant impact on freight transportation operations in the area.”

Meanwhile, an official at another local company said he had not yet seen any reaction to the closure as of Monday morning. “But that’s just today,” he added.

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