Woodhaven Expressway completion makes wishlist

It’s been almost nine years since the Somerton Civic Association entertained any official proposals for completing the half-century-old Woodhaven Expressway project. So it’s no surprise that members greeted the mere mention of the unfinished highway last week with sarcastic chuckles.

City Planner Greg Waldman referred to the unfinished highway during the civic group’s monthly meeting on Jan. 10 as part of a presentation on the ongoing Philadelphia 2035 initiative. “Philly 2035” is the City Planning Commission’s effort to formulate and publish a vision for the physical development of the city. The project began in 2010, so it’s meant as a 25-year wishlist of sorts with input from residents, business people and other community stakeholders.

The commission is working on the Far Northeast portion of the project and will host a third and final public meeting to discuss it on Jan. 31, from 6:30 to 8 p.m., at the local Community College of Philadelphia campus, 12901 Townsend Road.

At a prior Philly 2035 meeting in November, two-thirds of attendees said they favored extending the road westward through Somerton to the city’s border with Montgomery County, Waldman said. A minority of those surveyed favored extending the road only as far as Bustleton Avenue. Nobody at the prior planning meeting supported keeping the status quo.

Waldman told the Somerton residents last week that it would be in their best interests to get involved in the 2035 project so that their opinions on the Woodhaven Road issue can be recorded. But one longtime resident didn’t see the value in it.

“I’ve lived here for 54 years and heard it lots of times, but nothing ever happens,” the 84-year-old man said. “Why should I believe it now?”

Waldman replied that the Philly 2035 report, once complete, would guide public officials in choosing what development projects to pursue. Community support for the extension would help to justify it.

Ironically, the Somerton Civic Association rejected the last official Woodhaven Road proposal in 2008, when the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation floated an idea for a parkway-style road that would connect the current terminus of the expressway at Evans Street with Bustleton Avenue.

That plan called for the creation of a new intersection on Bustleton just north of the Leo Mall parking lot. In addition to the SCA, residents group from the Westwood section of Somerton and from Lower Moreland Township, Montgomery County, also rejected the deal.

The idea of building an expressway to serve as an east-west route through the Far Northeast originated in the mid-1950s when the City Planning Commission proposed a freeway running from Interstate 95 in Bensalem Township, Bucks County, to the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Southampton Township, Bucks County, passing through portions of Philadelphia and Montgomery counties.

The section from I-95 to Evans Street was completed in 1966. In planning for the extension, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation razed 28 Somerton homes via eminent domain. PennDOT still owns the right-of-way that it created for the roadway. It’s a largely overgrown strip of green space that runs south of and essentially parallel to Byberry Road. PennDOT employs Evans Street as a temporary on-ramp and off-ramp carrying vehicles between the terminus of the unfinished highway and Byberry Road. However, Byberry is a no-trucks route. There’s a three-ton weight limit on a bridge that carries Byberry Road over a freight railroad between Evans Street and Worthington Road.

At last week’s civic meeting, Waldman said that PennDOT plans to replace the bridge — which is considered a temporary structure, yet has been in service there for decades. Historically, neighbors have fought to keep the temporary bridge so as to maintain the weight restriction and prevent large trucks from using the residential portion of Byberry Road.

Residents living close to the right-of-way and those in Montgomery County, fearing negative impacts from the proposed highway, have mounted strong opposition to the project historically, while the Somerton Civic Association has generally supported the extension as a solution to traffic congestion in the neighborhood. Funding shortages and the local opposition prompted PennDOT to cancel the project in the late 1970s, only to revive the idea in 1988. PennDOT again removed the project from its long-range plans in 1996 in the face of the Lower Moreland and Westwood opposition.

The cycle resumed in 2001 when PennDOT developed several modified proposals and presented them to the community, which split along familiar lines: Somerton wanted the full highway extension, while Westwood and Lower Moreland opposed it.

With funding at a premium, PennDOT developed a parkway-style proposal in 2008. Rather than a limited access highway, the plan called for a surface-level boulevard that would intersect local streets and extend to Bustleton Avenue. All three organized community groups opposed the idea. ••