With I-95 bridge success, Shapiro has passed his first big test

The governor’s handling of the disaster has won over some critics. But will it help win over a divided legislature?

Governor Shapiro reopened I-95 in Philadelphia on June 23.

Governor Shapiro reopened I-95 in Philadelphia on June 23. Commonwealth Media Services

By Daniel C. Vock

Twelve days after a section of one of the country’s busiest highways collapsed in flames, Gov. Josh Shapiro stood on the rebuilt overpass to celebrate the completion of the temporary lanes that would get traffic on Interstate 95 flowing again.

A crowd of workers and officials gathered to mark the reopening. Mitch Landrieu, the White House infrastructure adviser, was there, as was Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. They were surrounded by workers in white hard hats and yellow reflector vests. And at the center of it all, in an official State of Pennsylvania windbreaker, stood Shapiro.

“We all came together and proved that we can do big things again in Pennsylvania,” the governor said. “We showed the world that when times get hard, Pennsylvanians show up for one another. We work together, and we get shit done.”

The June 11 catastrophe marked the kind of crucible that can make or break a new governor. Shapiro, a suburban Democrat with a moderate streak, seems to have weathered the crisis well.

“He’s probably won over some skeptics,” said John Kennedy, a political science professor at West Chester University. “It really plays into his message of competency, leadership and getting things done for the people. (The response) actually shows the effectiveness of government at all levels.”

And given the national interest in the bridge collapse and the rebuilding efforts, the crisis has given Shapiro the ability to tout that message far and wide. “The key was ‘all hands on deck,’” he told Fox News.

The state-led construction team used several creative approaches to help speed the construction fix.

Crews used “foam glass” aggregate – basically, a gravel-like material made of ground-up glass bottles and jars – to shore up the temporary bridges. The locally produced material is lighter than rock, which would have been too heavy to rest on top of an 86-inch sewer line that runs underneath.

When rain threatened to delay the final opening of the bridge, Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Mike Carroll turned to a NASCAR track to borrow a jet dryer to keep the asphalt dry long enough to paint lines on the bridge. Pocono Raceway provided the equipment for free.

Shapiro made a point during press conferences to praise the Philadelphia-area building trade unions for their expertise, noting that they were working around the clock to complete the temporary lanes as quickly as possible.

Ryan Boyer, the business manager of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, told CBS News that the workers were so focused on the job that they passed up a chance to meet with President Joe Biden, who checked out the site while in town.

“He wanted to meet some people that worked on the work site, and we said we can’t spare them,” Boyer said. “We love the president of the United States, but we need to get this bridge done.”

The governor’s embrace of the trade unions was significant, said Kennedy. Suburban voters have long been skeptical of the unions, and Ed Rendell, the former Democratic Philadelphia mayor who became governor, scored political points by fighting with them. But Shapiro could boost his own standing by combating that skepticism and working with those construction unions.

“If he’s able to pull this off,” Kennedy said, “Shapiro’s support in the suburbs is just going to skyrocket. And really, that’s true across the state.” 

One of the most popular aspects of the rebuilding effort has been a web camera that allows people to watch progress at the construction site in real time. Shapiro confessed that he has been watching the feed himself from multiple devices. At one point, the governor recounted, he grew agitated that an excavator had scooped up a load after the dump truck pulled away, but another dump truck arrived just in time for the tractor to empty its load.

Kennedy said the governor’s experience with the highway reconstruction will help his standing with the legislature and bolster his governing approach. “He certainly has made an effort to be inclusive and to focus on the question of competency over ideology. That’s been the message.”

Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty, where this story originally appeared.