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MIKE KEELER: The VERY Tortured History of I-95

Ah, August. And the drive home from the beach vacation. Which brings to mind…the epic transportation complication.

If you were a visitor to the United States, you might decide to fly into Miami for some fun in the sun. After which you could head north and explore the fabric of American on the most notable highway in the world: I-95. It runs 1,920 miles from Miami all the way to the Canadian border. So, go for a drive!

Make your way up through Florida, passing dozens of glorious beaches and St. Augustine, the oldest city in the country. In Georgia you could get a taste of the Old South while visiting Savannah. In the Carolinas, you could take side trips to Charleston or Myrtle Beach on the Coastal Plain to your right, or to the rolling country of the Piedmont on your left. In Virginia, it’s all about the War of Northern Aggression, and you can relive it at places with scary names like Cold Harbor, and ridiculous names like Spotsylvania.

And then you’re into Washington DC for the full American immersion. Continue north through Maryland, land of crabs and the national anthem. On into Delaware and…yeah, whatever. And then to Philadelphia, for the Liberty Bell, Constitution Hall and Benjamin Franklin.

OK, back on the road, you cross the Delaware into New Jersey and then…and then…um…I-95…just..disappears…. what, huh? This is I-95 North, right? Nope, you just entered the black hole of Trenton, my friend, and you have been 180’d onto I-295 South. You are headed to beautiful downtown Camden. No explanations, and not much help from any road signs.

The diverting of I-95 in New Jersey has a uniquely tortured history. The first issue was that when the Eisenhower highway system was being built in the 1950’s, the NJ Turnpike already existed as a toll road and the state didn’t want their revenue generator supplanted by a federal road. So I-95 was directed to the west, up through Pennsylvania.

In 1961, it was decided to have I-95 cross the Scudders Falls bridge over the Delaware west of Trenton, with a plan to later build a connector roughly along Route 1 to the Turnpike further north. But that idea raised the second issue, which was that the power brokers in Princeton didn’t want that future connector – known by the rather ominous moniker “Somerset Freeway” – passing so close to their sleepy town. So they fought it for years.

In 1982 they succeeded: the Somerset Freeway was cancelled AND New Jersey picked up $246MM in federal funds for road projects in the area. Which was spent building the current confusing system where I-95 North ends, you continue on I-295 South for 7 miles, pick up I-195 East for 6 more miles, follow signs for the NJ Turnpike (NOT listed as I-95), get on THAT northbound, and suddenly, bingo!, you’re back on I-95 headed to New York and New England. (Thus, in answer to the question, “Joisey? Yeah, what exit?” the answer is, “NO the NJ Turnpike is not I-95 (Exit 1 to Exit 6) and YES the NJ Turnpike is I-95 (Exits 6A to 16W).”

But now there’s a final fix underway. Further south in Bristol PA, where I-95 crosses the PA Turnpike, new connectors are being built that will seamlessly divert I-95 onto the final eastern portion of the PA Turnpike. From there travelers will continue east over the Delaware and connect with the NJ Turnpike via an upgraded interchange. After which various parts of roads now labeled as I-95 and I-295 will do an official Rand-McNally switcheroo.

After which, the most noteworthy highway in the world will finally run unbroken from one end to another.

And it will be completed in 2018, only 62 years after President Eisenhower signed the bill to create it.

Mike Keeler

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