At Last, I-95's Missing Link Hits The Road Interstate 95 stretches nearly 2,000 miles, an unbroken ribbon of highway from the top of Maine to the southern tip of Florida -- with one big exception. Finally, after 25 years in bureaucratic limbo, work on the final 12-mile stretch is set to begin.

At Last, I-95's Missing Link Hits The Road

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Now to that I-95 missing link we mentioned. The highway disappears for a few miles near the border of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, forcing travelers to divert onto other roads. Finally, after 25 years in bureaucratic limbo, work on the final 12-mile stretch of I-95 is set to begin within weeks.

We sent reporter Joel Rose out to look for the missing link.

JOEL ROSE: Im driving north on Interstate 95 between Philadelphia and New York City. And if youve ever done this, you know that I-95 disappears - confusingly -somewhere outside of Princeton, New Jersey.

The original plan was for 95 to continue all the way to New York, but that never happened because of powerful local opposition.

Mr. BILL MATHESIUS (Former Chief Executive, Mercer County, New Jersey): There was a specific revulsion to tearing up a rustic community, a rural community, and putting 95 through it

ROSE: Bill Mathesius was the chief executive of Mercer County, New Jersey, in the early 1980s. Mathesius says his constituents didn't want the interstate in their backyards. Looking out across his back porch, at the meadow and wooded hillside off in the distance, it's not hard to see why.

Mr. MATHESIUS: There would be, fundamentally, a six-lane highway going through this area with off-exchanges in one or two places. Those places would have been developed.

ROSE: Mathesius and his allies managed to block construction of a key stretch of Interstate 95, the so-called Missing Link. This was in 1982. Since Plan A didn't work, engineers decided to go with Plan B. This one doesn't involve Mercer County. Instead, the idea is to complete I-95 by connecting existing roads. So the familiar red, white and blue badge of Interstate 95 would continue unbroken, even when it shares the road with the Pennsylvania and New Jersey turnpikes. But this plan had its issues, too.

Mr. JEFF DAVIS (Project Manager, Pennsylvania Turnpike Authority): Well, this is the crossing so you can envision, you know, a structure being pretty high. It's actually a three-level interchange with...

ROSE: Jeff Davis is a project manager with the Pennsylvania Turnpike Authority. We're standing a few yards from the spot where I-95 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike cross, just north of Philadelphia. Right now, if you want to get from I-95 to the turnpike, or vice versa, you have to drive on surface streets for seven miles.

Mr. DAVIS: That's just the way things were done at that point. So we're trying to correct that.

ROSE: It hasn't been easy or quick. The interchange project is complicated because both roadways are hemmed in by homes, businesses and environmentally sensitive creeks.

Mr. DAVIS: As you can see here, things are all built up in this area, too. So it's very difficult to get something built without having a lot of displacements, and that's what we had to study.

ROSE: After decades of preliminary designs and environmental impact studies, construction of phase one is finally set to begin this fall, with a price tag of more than $400 million.

(Soundbite of car door closing)

ROSE: While Davis drives, consulting engineer Jay Roth points out where new ramps and exists will connect to the turnpike. At this point, neither of them needs a map.

Mr. JAY ROTH (Consulting Engineer): I've been working on this project since 1996, personally. Jeff's got me beat, though.

Mr. DAVIS: Nineteen-eighty-four, when we started conceptual studies.

ROSE: Jeff Davis has been working on this interchange for 26 years - basically his entire professional life.

Mr. DAVIS: We had, I guess, some dark moments. There was actually a year where the - I believe the federal funding got cut, and we put the project on hold. But right now, we feel pretty confident that, you know, stage one can get built.

ROSE: It's a proud moment for Davis and engineer Jay Roth.

Mr. ROTH: It doesn't just complete 95 from Maine to Florida; it completes the original interstate system as envisioned in 1956. So it is, you know, to me even more symbolic, for that reason.

ROSE: But Roth and Davis haven't quite reached their destination yet. Even under the best-case scenario, it'll be another seven years before the final stretch of I-95 is officially re-designated, and the Missing Link is gone for good.

For NPR News, Im Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

SIMON: NPR's series "I-95, The Road Most Traveled," continues tomorrow on WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY, with a report about the interstate's role in the global transportation network.

And we've got music to drive by - many road trips - and more, on our Web site,

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