See what the collapsed section of I-95 looks like
01:00 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Joyce M. Davis, outreach and opinion editor for PennLive and The Patriot-News, is the president and CEO of the World Affairs Council of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The opinions expressed here are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

Traffic has been severed in both directions on one of America’s busiest and most economically important thoroughfares. It will be months before I-95 is back to normal in the Philadelphia area, after a truck carrying thousands of gallons of gasoline crashed into a wall and burst into flames on Sunday. Businesses in and around the vital I-95 corridor in Philadelphia are worried about a regional economic catastrophe.

            Joyce M. Davis

The closure of I-95 impacts not only everyday life in and around Pennsylvania’s most populous city, but hurts the supply chain throughout the country  which still has not fully recovered from the Covid pandemic.

The transportation upheaval on I-95 also threatens to bring significant economic pain to other parts of the country for businesses that transport goods up and down the highway, which is a major transportation corridor not only for motorists but for interstate commerce. Officials note more than 160,000 vehicles pass each day through Philadelphia’s I-95 corridor.

At a press conference near the site of the collapse on Wednesday, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro said he felt certain that the federal government would provide the needed financial support.

“I’m confident lawmakers will give us whatever help, support, resources we need in order to see this job through,” he told reporters.

Investigators are trying to determine what caused the truck to veer out of control as it rounded a curve, landing on its side and crashing into a wall, with its flammable contents igniting at the scene. Heat from the blaze caused an overpass on the northbound side to completely collapse, while compromising the southbound portion of the highway.

This isn’t the first time in recent years that a major highway has buckled under the heat of a crash. A similar catastrophe closed the I-85 highway in Atlanta in 2017 when a fire was set under an elevated section of the roadway causing it to collapse. Traffic in that incident was disrupted for 43 days.

The crash in Philadelphia is also eerily similar to one that took place a decade ago in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which is two hours away from Sunday’s scene. Back then a diesel fuel tanker truck overturned and exploded, closing I-81 for four days and shutting down two ramps for months. The driver in that accident survived and pleaded guilty to three charges related to unsafe driving that caused the calamity.

But that 2013 accident offers just the merest hint of what lies ahead for residents downstate in the months ahead. The damage in Harrisburg took seven months to repair and snarled traffic in Pennsylvania’s capital region. The cost to return to normal was more than $12.4 million. The price tag will be a lot higher this time.

It’s causing a lot of people to ask whether more should be done to improve safety on the nation’s roads, starting with the big rigs that zip along the length of I-95 and other highways. And as we examine ways to avoid roadway calamities, it’s time to look at improving safety standards for what the Bureau of Labor Statistics says is one of the most dangerous jobs in America.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration says the number of fatalities from truck accidents has been steadily increasing since 2010. The one fatality from this weekend’s crash involved the driver behind the wheel of the rig carrying those 8,500 gallons of gasoline.

According to administration statistics, there were 13.49 fatal large truck crashes per million people in the United States in 2020, a 27% increase from 10.6 in 2010. Whatever driver training or safety measures are in place for truckers, they clearly are not enough.

No one knows exactly what caused the driver in Philadelphia to lose control of his rig. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident and said it will issue preliminary findings on the collapse in two to three weeks. The company operating the gasoline tanker that sparked the blaze was in good standing prior to the collision, according to investigators.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday that “Penn Tank Lines was in good operating status and has valid authority to be engaged in the type of transportation they were operating.”  It said the information came from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates commercial vehicles.

Meanwhile, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says that the average long-haul trucker works 60 hours per week and drives more than 107,000 miles per year. Drivers’ brutal schedules leave them vulnerable to falling asleep at the wheel, endangering their own lives and the lives of the other motorists that they share the road with.

Gov. Shapiro declared a state of emergency and said he was thankful that more drivers weren’t on the highway when it buckled from the heat. The body of the truck driver was found in the rubble at the scene. Had more people been on the road in Philadelphia when the accident occurred, the loss of life could have been catastrophic.

Making the roads we all drive on more impervious to flames should be another priority. Experts say no interstate highway was built to withstand the intense heat of exploding fuel trucks, and structural engineering expert Abi Aghayere, for one, said that going forward more efforts will be needed to make them more fire resistant.

Those who build the roads and those who figure out how to pay for them argue such high standards are just too expensive. That may be true. But as we see from the million-dollar price tags that came with previous accidents, it’s also expensive dealing with the months of massive disruption the I-95 closure will cause throughout the nation.

The closure of I-95 also will mean serious headaches for motorists throughout the region, with detours bringing long commutes for thousands of people. Traffic is being diverted to other corridors and mass transit will have to accommodate commuters and regional transportation. All of this will require meticulous planning and communication both within Pennsylvania and throughout the nation. Even that could take weeks to organize.

Get Our Free Weekly Newsletter

Some people ditched their cars for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority – SEPTA, the regional commuter train system –  but found that that commute was miserable as well. “It’s been a nightmare and to think this is 6 months to a year. I am going to try driving tomorrow but friends say it doubled their commute time,” one passenger told the local CBS News affiliate in Philadelphia.

And the gasoline spill that resulted from the accident is threatening environmental pollution, with fuel runoff from the crash spilling into the Delaware River. The US Coast Guard has been called in to help contain the damage.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says the federal government is pulling out all the stops to expedite funds to repair the major transportation corridor, but local officials  warned that even with federal aid, things won’t return to normal overnight.

Understanding what led to the crash that closed I-95 likely will take longer, as will coming up with recommendations on how to prevent another such tragedy. President Joe Biden and Secretary Buttigieg need to give serious thought to investigating whether anything more can be done to prevent that kind of collapse – starting with making it safer for all of us to share the road with trucks.