I-95 Reconstruction Almost Came to a Halt This Week. Here’s Why.

Crews continue to work the scene of a collapsed elevated section of Interstate 95, in Philadelphia, Wednesday, June 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

By Sean Kitchen

July 7, 2023

Republicans changed Pennsylvania’s Constitution in 2021 to limit the Governor’s emergency powers. Those changes almost brought I-95’s reconstruction to a halt and opened the door to politicizing future disasters and emergencies.

The reconstruction of I-95 was moments away from coming to a screeching halt on Monday, due to recent changes to Pennsylvania’s constitution that restrict the governor’s emergency powers. 

After a portion of the interstate collapsed in Philadelphia last month following an oil tanker explosion, Gov. Josh Shapiro issued an emergency declaration on June 12 to allow federal funds to flow to the reconstruction effort.

Those funds helped ensure that I-95 reopened within two weeks thanks to the construction of a temporary roadway. But the declaration was set to expire on Monday, potentially threatening the long-term reconstruction of the collapsed section. 

Before 2021, the governor could simply extend an emergency declaration in order to ensure the government can proactively address emergencies and disasters across the commonwealth. 

But following then-Gov. Tom Wolf’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pennsylvania Republicans successfully passed a constitutional amendment limiting the governor’s emergency proclamations to 21 days, unless they are extended by the General Assembly.

That change nearly caused chaos over last week, as the declaration was set to expire and members of the General Assembly were getting ready to leave for the 4th of July holiday.

In a press release, State Rep. Ed Neilson (D-Philadelphia), the Chair of the House Transportation Committee, explained how the House passed a resolution extending the disaster declaration for a full year only for the Republican-controlled Senate to ignore it and pass their own, shorter extension.

As a result, Neilson had to get House leadership to schedule an emergency committee meeting last Friday to vote on Senate Resolution 136, which extends Shapiro’s emergency declaration to November 1, 2023.

“We met, we talked to leadership, the governor’s office and PennDOTd and we got everybody together and got everybody in the room to make certain that we could have a committee meeting,” Neilson said in an interview. “We voted the Senate Resolution – SR 136 – out of committee and then we suspended the rules for immediate consideration on the House Floor.”

SR 136 passed, but only extends Shapiro’s emergency declaration to November 1, 2023, meaning legislators in both chambers will have to go through the same process again in the fall to make sure I-95’s reconstruction occurs without any hiccups. 

This may cause the reconstruction project to be held hostage by legislators over issues that are specific to their causes.

When speaking about this process, Neilson said, “I think it’s ridiculous. Right now, we see the House and Senate are fighting over the budget. So something like this could occur. None of us have a crystal ball to see what’s going to happen, but that’s why you want the extension. And that’s why we’re looking to get a year.”

If lawmakers hadn’t been able to agree on extending Shapiro’s declaration, the consequences could have been dire.

“The project funding would have froze up. The work would have stopped and then we would have gone through a process of getting more money from the feds,” Neilson said. “It’s a little more complicated than people think.”

The project would have gone through a start and stop cycle, he noted, but because the resolution was extended, there will be a steady flow of money coming from the federal government. 

Author

  • Sean Kitchen

    Sean Kitchen is the Keystone’s political correspondent, based in Harrisburg. Sean is originally from Philadelphia and spent five years working as a writer and researcher for Pennsylvania Spotlight.

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