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At Last, I-95's Missing Link Hits The Road04:49

Signs indicate where I-95 begins north of Trenton, N.J. (Joel Rose/NPR)
Signs indicate where I-95 begins north of Trenton, N.J. (Joel Rose/NPR)

Interstate 95 stretches nearly 2,000 miles, an unbroken ribbon of highway from the top of Maine to the southern tip of Florida -- with one big exception.

Mysteriously, I-95 disappears for a few miles near the border of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, forcing travelers to divert onto other roads. Finally, after 25 years in bureaucratic limbo, work on the final 12-mile stretch -- I-95's so-called "missing link" -- is set to begin within weeks.

The original plan was for I-95 to continue all the way to New York, but that never happened because of powerful local opposition.

"There was a specific revulsion to tearing up a rustic community -- a rural community -- and putting 95 through it," explains Bill Mathesius, who was the chief executive of Mercer County, N.J., in the early 1980s. He says his constituents didn't want the interstate in their backyards. Looking out across his back porch at the meadow and wooded hillside off in the distance, it's not hard to see why.

"There would be fundamentally a six-lane highway going through this area, with off-exchanges in one or two places," Mathesius says. "Those places would have been developed."

Mathesius and his allies managed to block construction of that key stretch of I-95 in 1982. So since Plan A didn't work, engineers decided to go with Plan B.

Plan B

This one doesn't involve Mercer County.  Instead, the idea is to complete I-95 by connecting existing roads. So the familiar red, white and blue badge of Interstate 95 would continue unbroken, even when it shares the road with the Pennsylvania and New Jersey turnpikes. But this plan has its issues, too.

At the spot where I-95 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike cross just north of Philadelphia, if you want to get from I-95 to the turnpike -- or vice versa -- you have to drive on surface streets for seven miles. Project manager Jeff Davis says that has to change. He envisions a three-level interchange instead.

But the interchange project hasn't been easy or quick. It's complicated because both roadways are hemmed in by homes, businesses and environmentally sensitive creeks.

"Things are all built up in this area," Davis says, "so it's very difficult to get something built without a lot of displacements -- and that's what we had to study."

After decades of preliminary designs and environmental impact studies, construction of Phase 1 is finally set to begin this fall, with a price tag of more than $400 million.

A bridge overlooks where I-95 crosses the Pennsylvania Turnpike. (Joel Rose/NPR)

Finally, A Unified I-95

Davis has been working on this interchange for 26 years -- basically his entire professional life -- starting in 1984 when the project was in conceptual studies.

"We had, I guess, some dark moments," he says. "There was actually a year where the federal funding got cut, and we put the project on hold. But right now, we feel pretty confident that Stage 1 can get built."

It's a proud moment for both Davis and consulting engineer Jay Roth.

"It doesn't just complete 95 from Maine to Florida," Roth says, "it completes the original interstate system as envisioned in 1956. It is, to me, even more symbolic for that reason."

But Roth and Davis haven't quite reached their destination yet. Even under the best-case scenario, it'll be seven years before the final stretch of I-95 is officially redesignated, and the missing link is gone for good.

Copyright NPR 2019.


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