PHILADELPHIA — The collapse of a portion of I-95 in Northeast Philadelphia following a massive blaze caused by an overturned tanker truck could cause supply chain headaches across the East Coast, state and federal officials warned Tuesday.
Following a tour of the site, Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the deadly crash that has shut down the highway in both directions since Sunday morning is having “an outsized impact on commuters and on goods movement up and down the I-95 corridor.”
The portion near Cottman Avenue that buckled onto itself saw an average of 160,000 vehicles a day, and officials estimate about 8% of those are typically tractor trailers.
“Part of what goes into the cost of everything that we pay for in the store is the cost of shipping, and if a route is disrupted or if it’s longer, or if trucks have to wait, that finds its way into the cost of goods,” Buttigieg said. “There’s no substitute for I-95 being up and running in full working condition.”
Two days after the crash, local businesses were already feeling the effects. Joe Notarianni, owner of Pro-Tech Automotive shop at Cottman Avenue and State Road, said the traffic restrictions cut off customers and parts deliveries.
“Nobody’s really getting any answers yet,” he said.
Reconstructing the eight-lane highway with speed and precision will be likely be a Herculean task requiring months of work. Two days after the highway was reduced to a disaster zone, a contractor was demolishing the southbound side of the expressway and engineers were working around the clock to finalize a reconstruction plan that state officials intend to unveil Wednesday.
In the meantime, investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board were combing through the wreckage. Pennsylvania State Police, who conducted a preliminary crash investigation, said Monday that the driver of the fuel tanker was negotiating a lefthand turn off of I-95 when they lost control of the vehicle and it fell on its side underneath the overpass.
About 8,500 gallons of gasoline combusted and the truck burst into flames, melting the steel girders that held up the northbound side of I-95 and causing the bridge to collapse.
A body was found in the rubble, and is presumed to be Nathan S. Moody, a New Jersey truck owner-operator who worked for TK Transport Inc, a gas-supply company based in Pennsauken. In 2015, another driver working for TK Transport lost control of his tanker truck while coming off a ramp near the Betsy Ross bridge. The truck burst into flames, causing nearly $1 million in damage and shuttering the busy highway ramp.
Investigators and other top officials have declined to comment on whether speed was a factor in Sunday’s crash. The NTSB intends to publish an initial report in about two or three weeks.
“This was an enormously intense fire underneath a structure that, to my understanding, is relatively new in its construction,” Buttigieg said of the bridge, which officials have estimated was updated 10 to 12 years ago. “Beyond that commonsense level, that we know what happened underneath this section of highway, I don’t want to get ahead of the work that NTSB is doing.”
State and local authorities were detouring traffic in the area Tuesday, and rush-hour commuters faced heavy backups in the vicinity of the crash site. Some drivers reported sitting in traffic for more than an hour after exiting the highway.
No officials have offered a cost estimate for cleaning up the site of the collapse and replacing the gap in the expressway, which serves as the main artery between New York City and Washington, D.C. Buttigieg said PennDot will be eligible to receive federal funds both to cover up-front costs associated with construction and reimbursed dollars after the replacement project is completed.
“There’s no question in my mind that all of the resources that PennDot needs federally will be available,” he said.
He said SEPTA may also receive federal dollars — the city’s public transit agency has scrambled to increase capacity on Regional Rail lines that connect Northeast Philadelphia and the northern suburbs with the rest of the region.
Carroll said PennDot’s typical bidding process was waived under an emergency declaration signed by Gov. Josh Shapiro, and the state contracted a construction company that was already performing demolition work at the site. Lawmakers in Harrisburg are already negotiating a deal to extend Shapiro’s emergency declaration beyond its initial 21-day span.
Shapiro, a Democrat in his first year in office, intends to visit the site for a second time Wednesday. He is slated to outline a reconstruction plan and will appear alongside leaders of the Philadelphia Building Trades & Construction Council, a coalition of labor unions.
Across the river, South Jersey officials are also assessing potential costs associated with the collapse.
Assemblyman Bill Moen, D-Camden, said he asked NJDOT to study and document the state’s costs, including the likely wear-and-tear from months’ worth of East Coast traffic diverting to the Garden State’s highway system.
“It’s the worst time of year for this to happen, in the summer when everybody’s going to the Shore,” Moen said, adding that if the state is not looking at costs now and discussing them with the federal government, “it would be very easy to overlook New Jersey.”