Following I-95 collapse, attention turns to public transit alternatives

In a Q&A, Jay Arzu, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of City & Regional Planning, discusses how investment in public transit would alleviate travel stress caused by incidents like the I-95 bridge collapse.

Cars wait in a line to divert from an exit roadway.
Traffic is diverted from a collapsed elevated section of Interstate 95, in Philadelphia on June 14, 2023. (Image: AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The closure of a section of I-95 in northeast Philadelphia has spurred countless detour route suggestions and sent many others to SEPTA’s Regional Rail as a transit alternative. In the process, renewed attention has been paid to the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway proposal, most recently with a widely co-sponsored resolution introduced in Philadelphia’s City Council that calls for further examination of the plan.

A leader behind the proposal for the subway is Jay Arzu, a Ph.D. candidate in City & Regional Planning at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design. The subway proposal would connect northeast neighborhoods to both the Broad Street and Market-Frankford lines, taking advantage of an existing 80-foot median. Consideration for rapid transit along the oft-congested boulevard has been considered for more than a century and garnered renewed interest after a series of community meetings held last year, co-organized by Arzu. 

Arzu, who is in his second year at the Weitzman School, took interest in the project because of his background advocating for racial equity in transit—particularly the presence of highways in Black and working-class neighborhoods—and working on transportation legislation in Washington, D.C. As a child growing up in the Bronx, he says, he lived adjacent to a highway and eventually realized there was a relationship between his asthma and his environment. 

“Growing up, I thought that was something all children had to go through, because all my friends had asthma as well,” Arzu says. “As I became a teenager, I quickly realized that wasn’t the case and we were suffering through some environmental injustice. That’s what really got me started in doing youth organizing and transportation organizing.”

His interest in the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway, in particular, came from a class project at Penn, in which he was asked to examine an infrastructure project he thought would be worth revisiting. He chose the Roosevelt Boulevard example and compared it with the Second Avenue Subway in New York City, another century-in-the-making project that has been weighed down by ballooning costs associated with deep digs and expensive mezzanines. After finding a study about the impact of rapid transit on Roosevelt Boulevard, dating from 1999 to 2003, Arzu was motivated to start advocating for a revisit of transit proposals.

Here, Arzu discusses the plan for the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway and the benefits of a multimodal transit approach. 

What do you see as the relationship between what happened on I-95 and the subway line being proposed for Roosevelt Boulevard?

We were caught off guard. Our region was brought to its knees, due to our overdependence on our highway system. I-95 being down is causing headaches for commerce and businesses, but also for commuters who use it to get to the airport or who use it to get to Center City. I think that if the region wasn’t aware of the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway before this, they are now very aware, and that’s because they recognize the alternatives are not sufficient. 

SEPTA, of course, has tried their best with their limited resources and limited budget to add trains, but it’s not enough. Of course, we need to encourage them to push for reimagining the Regional Rail, which is a good plan, but we need better transportation resiliency, and that’s where the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway plays into this. Based on maps that PennDOT has put out diverting drivers, they’re telling drivers to drive down Roosevelt Boulevard, and we already know Roosevelt Boulevard is one of the most dangerous urban streets in America. People die every other week; there are accidents every other day. To bring more car traffic down Roosevelt Boulevard is an injustice to the communities that have to live adjacent to it. We recognize if things had been different, instead of having to drive down congested Roosevelt Boulevard, [commuters] could have parked at a convenient park-and-ride at the Woodhaven Station, where people on I-95 could be diverted directly [there].

Why would the subway line be the best proposal as opposed to light rail?

When they last studied Roosevelt Boulevard corridor, from 1993 to 2003, they studied bus rapid transit, light rail, and a heavy rail alternative. What they found with light rail is because of the complex intersections on Roosevelt Boulevard, like Oxford Circle and Cottman Avenue, with a high volume of cars it would be very difficult to make a light rail system work under those circumstances. And second, Philadelphians really value a one-seat ride, and what makes the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway so special is it would directly connect to the Broad Street Subway express tracks and the Market-Frankford Line would be extended a mile north to meet the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway at Bustleton Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard. Doing that would create new regional connections [for the community to] largely get the one-seat ride they desire, to go to Fishtown and vice versa, and other places, creating economic development and at the same time create more options for Northeast residents. We’re not telling people to abandon their cars. We’re telling people we want to give you more options.

Is there any concern about people actually using the subway line?

I have no doubt people will use this. When they last studied it, it had a high daily ridership. We’re waiting for PennDOT to give us updated daily ridership numbers, either at the end of the summer or early fall, but we know it’s going to be over 100,000 riders daily. We have 400,000 people in Northeast Philadelphia and there are a lot of people who fear driving on Roosevelt Boulevard. We want to use the subway as the impetus to make necessary changes to make it a place the community can feel connected to. 

[For the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway], we wanted to do a linear park like the High Line Park on top of it and want to have dedicated bike lanes on both sides of Roosevelt Boulevard. We want to create a multimodal atmosphere rather than one dominated by car traffic. The street has 12 lanes of traffic; it’s a caricature of an American boulevard and is literally causing people to die—it’s literally called the Boulevard of Death. 

Philadelphia received $79 million in federal money to do safety improvement but they’re not taking away any lanes. When we get the subway in there, we’ll be able to take tens of thousands of cars off the road and will give us the capacity to at least take away the express lanes.

Do you think the bridge collapse will help the case for the subway?

I want to be respectful to the family of the deceased truck driver. I don’t want to seem advantageous here and I want to be sensitive to that. I think the demand was already there and the bridge collapse has opened a lot of people’s eyes to weaknesses in our transportation system, and that we also have a system highly dependent on driving—especially from the Northeast. 

We need to make improvements to SEPTA, not only with the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway, but increasing frequency on the Trenton and West Trenton lines is going to be impactful for the Northeast. And I think investment in SEPTA and these transit lines, and building the subway will lead to a boom for the Northeast. There’s a lot of growth and opportunity there, with amazing neighborhoods that need investment, and with these investments in our infrastructure, it’s going to be beneficial. 

I don’t want to fully criticize I-95 but at the same time we’ve seen the commonwealth and PennDOT throw money at the I-95 modernization project and it’s years over budget and hasn’t even gotten to Phase Two. It’s scary how much money they’ve thrown at this. We’re asking the state to rethink a lot of these things and put more money toward multimodal opportunities, and we want that centered on the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway.

What do you think is the cause of this disconnect between the solution for traffic congestion, and improved safety, and adding public transit? Why is public transit sometimes dismissed as a solution?

Funding. We throw money at the roads and shortchange public transportation systems and authorities. SEPTA is a basket case of not investing in your transit system and throwing all your money at highway systems. What people need to understand is I-95 and I-676 are fairly new highways, and at the time that’s where the money was. These highway systems were getting 80 percent paid by the federal government at one time, and today we see the federal Department of Transportation struggle to maintain these highways. It’s not easily maintained and when you have to rebuild them, it’s largely a headache and you have projects go over budget. Whereas, if you put that money toward the expansion of public transportation, you’re opening the door for new opportunities; you’re opening the door for economic development. Just because you’re modernizing and sprucing up I-95 doesn’t mean you’ll have development adjacent to it; it could be the opposite, that you widen the highway and potentially displace people. When building something like the subway or multimodal facilities, you’re opening the door to growth for an area. And the Northeast right now needs this type of economic stimulus. 

How much do you think the economic component plays into this? I’m thinking of the Gateway project in New York, which took a long time to happen, and that seems like it was really driven by the emphasis on how much of the nation’s economy runs through that tunnel.

We want commerce to continue to flow in and out of Philadelphia with ease. We have the Philadelphia port right on the waterfront not far from the intersection of I-76 and I-95, so to make it better and more efficient, let’s take tens of thousands of cars off the roads. Let’s get commuters on trains, on the Regional Rail, on the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway, so we have more capacity for inter-city commerce to flow through Philadelphia. We recognize I-95 is extremely important to the eastern seaboard and we don’t want to be a blockage in it. So, to do that, we need commuters off roads and into trains and to open spaces for this commerce. It’ll open more doors for industrial businesses and factories to set up shop in Philadelphia and create new opportunities.

How do you respond to people who are concerned about subways carrying their own risk? Equipment issues, safety, etc.

I’ve had this conversation many times. It’s a good question. Truthfully, I tell them this: The SEPTA you see today is largely a system that has been neglected and underfunded from the gate. No one in the room can say they’ve seen a SEPTA that’s fully funded. It’s always been dependent on the state; it’s always been dependent on the Turnpike. Give SEPTA a chance. See how the system would run if we fully funded it, if it had enough money to buy new Regional Rail transit, had enough money to pay for a reimagined Regional Rail where we have 15-minute services, if we could bring best practices like what’s happening in Toronto with the Toronto Go expansion, to Philadelphia. I feel like Toronto is a good example of what Philadelphia should be looking at. And the economic opportunities associated with that are going to be beneficial for [homeowners]. If you have a subway or Regional Rail station with a train coming every 10-15 minutes or a subway every six minutes, that’s going to raise your property value. … 

At the same time, I try to explain that if you deny your section of the region your infrastructure investments, other cities are going to happily take this [federal] money. Other cities are moving much quicker than Philadelphia to reach out for this infrastructure law and Inflation Reduction Act funding, and if we don’t get on the same track we’re going to miss out on these things. That means getting our localized funding match, so the federal government can pay for half these projects; that means being able to apply for discretionary gaps and not apply at the last minute like we did for the Vine Street highway cap. Luckily, we were successful, but that was scratched together at the last moment. We can’t be a region scratching things together at the last minute, especially if we’re trying to attract businesses and economic development here and attract foreign direct investment to compete with our peer cities. We need to step our game up. 

Are you feeling optimistic?

I’m very optimistic.

On June 15, the City Council of Philadelphia passed a resolution allocating funding to study the subway, have public hearings, and work with SEPTA and state officials to move the project forward. 

We want this to be shovel ready and ground broken July 2026 when we have the president here [for the semiquincentennial], and it will be a momentous time to show the world that America can still build subways, employ tens of thousands of people, and we can bring economic growth to our communities in an equitable, effective, and efficient way.