Will the I-95 collapse in Philadelphia hurt the economy? Look at other cities for answers

New York

A section of northbound I-95 in Philadelphia collapsed Sunday after a tanker truck caught fire underneath the highway. The southbound side is also “compromised by heavy fire,” city officials said Sunday.

I-95 is an important artery for not only the East Coast, but for regional transportation and commuters in Philadelphia. The affected portion of I-95 carries about 150,000 vehicles per day, of which 14,000 are trucks, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission said Sunday.

Along with traffic, there could be an economic impact from a closure this massive, snarling commutes and complicating deliveries. Tumar Alexander, managing director for the City of Philadelphia, said the incident will have “a significant impact to this community for a while.”

“95 will be impacted for a long time,” Alexander added during a news conference.

The Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management urged travelers to avoid the area and seek alternate routes.

There are a number of industrial businesses ranging from port facilities to manufacturing surrounding the collapsed portion of the highway, making it a prime corridor for regional freight movement, Kristen Scudder, the city’s planning commission freight program manager said Sunday.

“Those industries are what’s going to feel the brunt of the disruption probably due to surface street delays and potentially diversions for shipments coming in and out,” Scudder said.

The diversions could lead to a ripple effect in the local supply chain, Scudder said, and increased shipping and inventory storage costs.

The majority of national freight movement goes through nearby Interstate 295 and the New Jersey Turnpike, making I-95 a corridor for local goods to the national network.

However, Scrudder added travel behavior should stabilize as drivers become accustomed to detours.

Mass highway closures are not new throughout the US. Fewer than 44% of the nation’s 618,456 highway bridges are rated in good condition, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics found, and more than 45,000 bridges are in poor condition.

Economic impact

Previous bridge failures on key stretches of highway in Memphis and in Minneapolis cost the local economies tens of millions of dollars.

Before the Minnesota I-35W bridge collapsed in 2007, the corridor provided 140,000 vehicles direct access to downtown Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota and key local businesses, the Minnesota Department of Transportation said. More than 5,000 of the vehicles were commercial trucks.

An economic study by the state found it would cost road users $400,000 per day by using alternate routes. The study added a monetary value to travel times for cars and trucks and the operating costs of various alternate route.

Another analysis by the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development and the transportation department found the economic loss was about $17 million in 2007 and $43 million in 2008.

“This economic loss has the potential to cost the state jobs throughout the economy,” the study said.

But because I-35W was such an important route for commuters and truckers, the bridge was rebuilt a little over a year later, much ahead of the December 2008 timeline, which was already considered to be fast. The state had fast tracked $234 million to build the bridge ahead of the deadline, reports said.

The 2021 I-40 bridge failure between Memphis and West Memphis, Arkansas, was a key crossroads for trading, a report from the Bureau of Transportation found. The reroute to a nearby bridge increased travel times from 15 minutes to up to 75.

In Atlanta, Invest Atlanta’s “I-85 Business Impact Survey” found 75% of affected businesses in the area had experienced a loss of customers due to the I-85 closure in 2017. More than half reported a delay in delivery times.

Morning commutes

The Philadelphia bridge collapse also brings up another question: How will commuters get to work?

Advocates for public transport in Philadelphia look to Atlanta, when the Interstate-85 bridge collapsed in 2018 after a massive fire. The affected area saw 243,000 trips daily and was expected to complicate traffic for months in one of the country’s most congested cities.

Residents relied on MARTA, the transit service. One station saw a 67% increase in weekday ridership following the collapse, an Atlanta Regional Commission report found. The stations in the northern suburbs saw the highest increases.

In the immediate aftermath, MARTA jumped into action, increasing headway on its rail system during peak travel periods and added nearly 1,200 new parking spaces, an ARC snapshot of the 2017 collapse reported.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority said it is working on possibly adding service for Monday, but has not yet made an announcement.

“In Philadelphia, we don’t have the same luxury (as Atlanta) because we don’t have the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway,” a group advocating for a subway in Northeast Philadelphia to city center, tweeted after the I-95 collapse.

On Twitter, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said he is “closely monitoring” the situation Sunday.

Referring to the Federal Highway Administration and his department, Buttigieg said,

“I’ve been in touch with FHWA and spoke with Gov. Shapiro to offer any assistance that USDOT can provide to help with recovery and reconstruction.”

CNN’s Celina Tebor and Zoe Sottile contributed to this report.