I-95 Construction Raises Questions of Safety vs. Convenience

A+sign+on+the+ramp+from+Jackson+Street+to+I-95+warns+of+the+construction+ahead.+Work+began+in+March+2021+and+is+projected+to+end+in+Fall+2023.

Emily M. '22

A sign on the ramp from Jackson Street to I-95 warns of the construction ahead. Work began in March 2021 and is projected to end in Fall 2023.

For Wilmington residents, students, and workers, Interstate 95 is a common sight and part of the daily commute as the East Coast highway runs directly through the city. Built in the 1960s, the highway’s structures have worn down, and the Delaware Department of Transportation’s (DelDOT) “Restore the Corridor” project is underway. Construction began in March 2021 and will take about three years, with the area facing delays for about two years.

Charles McLeod, the Director of Community Relations for DelDOT, said “there’s no perfect time” to work on a road of this size, which carries over 100,000 vehicles daily. 

However, DelDOT deemed 2021 the best time to begin construction because waiting any longer would lead to even more expensive and intensive road work later on.

“Over the past 10 years or so… we start[ed] to see deterioration happening and we start[ed] to see concrete crumbling,” he said. “We’re putting Band-Aids on issues, and we reach a point where putting Band-Aids on it isn’t going to fix it anymore.”

The “comprehensive” project involves “completely rebuilding” 11 ramps and fixing the bearings and joints on 19 bridges. 

Traffic slows as cars crowd onto I-95 near the Christiana Mall. “No one likes construction, but again the ultimate goal here is that we have a safe and well maintained road for years to come,” McLeod said. (Emily M. ’22)

McLeod said drivers in the area have likely noticed how bumpy and uneven the roads have become over the years.

“Years and years of wear and tear breaks that concrete down, and we’re actually going to be replacing the top several inches of that concrete road deck with a new road surface,” he said.

According to DelDOT, I-95 North is closed for restoration from now until Fall 2021, and the I-95 South lanes are split into northbound and southbound lanes. This pattern will be reversed until February 2023 to restore I-95 South. 

Throughout that time, construction will take place on ramps and bridges, and all other project elements will be completed by Fall 2023.

McLeod said he recognized “a project of this magnitude is disruptive” and would impact people’s daily lives and commutes. While the construction and delays cannot be avoided, he continues to work with the media to ensure citizens regularly receive accurate information about the project.

“We want to make sure that people have as much information about the work that we’re doing because we all have places to go,” McLeod said. “… It’s a big job and one that we take seriously.”

One way DelDOT’s information reaches local residents is via radio traffic updates. Mike Phillips is the voice of TrafficWatch on WSTW, WDEL, and WXCY, doing 16 reports per hour from 5:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. 

The Restore the Corridor website displays interactive maps of the construction zone and affected areas. (DelDOT)

“Our job is to get [information] out to our listeners… who are listening in their cars,” Phillips said. “They rely on us to tell them, ‘Don’t go this way,’ and it’s just been magnified over the past month or so now with the new I-95 Restore the Corridor Project.”

The traffic center monitors police and fire scanners, Google Maps, and DelDOT sites on three different computers.

Phillips has noticed certain new patterns in the morning commute on I-95. Traffic slows in both directions “in the heart of downtown Wilmington, not too far from where Padua’s located,” between 7:30 and 8 a.m. when the route is busiest.

“You’re taking two lanes of traffic at either end and squeezing them down to one, and that’s going to slow things down no matter how much traffic you have out there,” he said.

When coupled with bad weather, slow traffic conditions can accumulate into more accidents and blocked lanes, causing a “ripple effect” along the road.

Phillips suggested motorists take alternate routes when possible—I-495, Route 13, Kirkwood Highway, Lancaster Pike—because “there’s plenty of ways to get into the city of Wilmington.” However, even though local drivers may get used to the alternates, those from neighboring states may not be as aware.

“I-95 is a very transient interstate connecting Pennsylvania directly, New Jersey via 295, [and] Maryland,” Phillips said, “so you have a lot of traffic moving through this area that may not be familiar with what’s going on and don’t know to try and avoid it.”

Large construction vehicles work on a segment of I-95. (Emily M. ’22)

To minimize these issues, part of McLeod’s job is sharing information about closures and recommended routes with Phillips so radio listeners receive accurate details while on the road. McLeod emphasized that his efforts include informing drivers, especially those from outside Delaware, via radio, social media, websites, and apps.

“We need to make sure that people in other states are aware because we want them using 495 as much as possible and trying to keep 95 moving as best we can while this project’s underway,” McLeod said.

Now weeks into the project, McLeod said he is confident DelDOT will complete construction within the “aggressive” timeline, with the help of its contractors. Kiewit International is the lead contractor on the job, and McLeod noted their “excellent” track record on projects of this size in the past.

“We’re a month in, and given the amount of work that they have already accomplished in terms of demolition and really getting the project up and running, we are very encouraged and we think that two-year timeline is absolutely going to be met.”

Still, some are uncertain about the project lasting three years, two of which involve reduced lanes on the interstate. Ms. Smith of Padua’s Business Office said she was concerned with how long the resulting delays would last and whether DelDOT would meet the proposed deadline.

Here is a look at the project, by the numbers, according to McLeod and DelDOT. (Emily M. ’22)

“They said it was going to be a two year project, but you know how that goes,” Smith said. “I figured it could go for three years or more.”

Rather than dealing with the delays, Smith and her family took a different approach: moving from Maryland to Delaware. After completing research, she relocated to Wilmington because she knew it was “really going to hurt” her commute.

“I lived in Elkton, and once we saw everything that they were going to be doing, we decided to move,” Smith said. “… It was a big decision, but I definitely think it was the right one.”

Since her commute decreased from 40 minutes to just five, Smith said her coworkers who brave I-95 regularly are “pretty jealous” that she can avoid the traffic.

“One of my coworkers tells me she has tried five or six different routes to get here, and it’s stressful,” she said. “I feel sad and when they come in late, I know it’s because they’re stuck in that traffic.”

A recent survey involved 167 respondents who reported on how I-95 construction has impacted their commute to school. (Emily M. ’22)

Smith’s situation is rare within the school community. In a recent survey of 167 students and staff, 61.7 percent take an alternate route to school due to the I-95 construction. Most experienced a commute change of five minutes, 10 minutes, or none at all.

Respondents rated the impact on their commute, with 47.9 percent rating it as “minor” and 6 percent as “severe.” Those affected get to school in a variety of ways: about 46 percent said a parent drives them, 39.5 percent drive themselves, 5.4 percent carpool, and 4.8 percent ride the bus. The remaining respondents drive with a friend or sibling, or walk.

Freshman Osayamen Ediae rides the school bus each day from Bear, Del., and is the first stop on the route. The commute takes about 90 minutes, but she said she does not mind the long trip because she has many friends on the bus.

“The first stop is at 6 am and then we get to school around 7:30,” Ediae said. “… I’m 20 minutes away from school, but because [I’m the] first stop and there’s people all over Bear and Newark, it takes a lot longer.”

Overall, Ediae rated the impact on her commute as minor because the project is not a “huge change in those who ride the bus”. The alternate route they take, she said, is only about five minutes longer.

“I would say that even though it is going to take… a really, really long time for [the construction] to happen,” she said, “… at the same time it doesn’t really change how I go to school and stuff, so I guess I don’t really mind it that much.”

Like over half of students and staff, senior Alanna Socha takes an alternate route to school, and her commute time increased by between five and 10 minutes. Socha rated this impact as moderate, citing slight changes in her morning routine and which exit she takes.

I can’t really tell you that we’ve had too many what I would consider ‘clean’ days as far as no incidents, morning or afternoon.”

— Mike Phillips

“I try to leave earlier, but we end up leaving around the same time, and before we usually got to school extra early anyways,” she said. “So now instead of arriving at 7:50, we’re arriving around 8. … It kind of forced the schedule back a bit.”

Socha, who drives herself and her sister from Newark, Del., faces increased congestion during the morning rush but said “it’s not too bad”. Drivers sometimes do not change lanes quickly and block other cars attempting to exit the interstate, she noticed.

“It’s a little bit more scary because you have the barriers on the sides a little bit closer to you, Socha said. “There’s not really a shoulder lane or anything as you’re going, so it’s definitely a little bit more [that] you have to pay attention.”

Smith said she thinks the construction could potentially affect not only local businesses, but also future students’ decisions to attend Padua.

“I think it impacts Padua because it could make people not want to drive up here to come to school,” she said, “and it hurts the businesses around here as well, because people have to detour around.”

Socha agreed, saying it was “a little bit concerning” that the drive to school could impact students’ decisions to attend the nearby high schools.

Vehicles navigate the reduced lanes in each direction. “I know it was a necessary project, but it just feels like it was a lot to be done all at one time, and it really hurts,” Smith said. (Emily M. ’22)

“Just thinking about how long that construction takes is kind of crazy,” Socha said.

While she said the traffic would not have affected her personal high school decision, Ediae recognized that “it really depends” on family situations. She said the construction can be “really annoying” but should not be a dealbreaker.

“If your parents are taking you every day and they need to go to work and stuff, it’s not really ideal for them to be taking a longer time due to that construction there,” she said. “Even though it’s hard for working parents, there are still other methods to get to school.”

Phillips called the construction “a necessary evil” because by waiting any longer, the road could see even more severe problems. Working alongside McLeod, Phillips said he is hopeful their efforts will aid drivers and local residents through the years of construction.

“[I-95] is where it is and we have a responsibility to maintain it,” McLeod said, “but again we want to do as much as we can to at least mitigate some of the impacts that it does have on the surrounding communities.”