The recent collapse of a bridge on Interstate 95 in Philadelphia garnered national and international news coverage. There are many reasons why this tragic accident continues to receive such widespread attention. I-95 is an important piece of infrastructure connecting the South and North along the eastern half of the United States.
The interstate carries more than 150,000 vehicles, including 14,000 trucks, through Philadelphia daily. Because the I-95 is a critical supply chain connection for the northeast corridor and much of the eastern seaboard, the repairs now underway will have a far-reaching effect beyond those who live and work in the region. In 2021, trucks carried 21 million tons of freight through Philadelphia, mostly over I-95, worth more than $100 billion.
A temporary bridge was completed within two weeks. Ahead of schedule, it was an impressive feat and a testament to the results that can be achieved when public officials, engineers, and construction professionals act quickly and work together.
But the biggest challenge lies ahead—the longer construction process of building a permanent replacement bridge. As of this writing, no official timeline has been set, but Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro has stated that the project will take “some number of months.” The Federal Highway Administration estimates that the rebuild could cost between $25-30 million, with funding coming from emergency grant money as part of the $1.25 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) that was passed in 2021.
As one of the rare infrastructure projects in the national spotlight, the rebuilding of I-95 has the potential to boost Americans’ confidence in the ability of public and private sectors to work together on projects that improve our quality of life.
The stakes are high: According to 2023 research from Project Management Institute (PMI), the majority of Americans view state and local governments as responsible for infrastructure improvements and nearly two-thirds (64%) of Americans say roads and bridges are one of their top infrastructure concerns. But only 37% are confident in the government's ability to successfully complete infrastructure improvements in their community.
This project also has the potential to demonstrate that the IIJA can deliver on its promise to provide much-needed improvements to US infrastructure, which, according to the Infrastructure Report Card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers, is graded a C-. Roads scored even worse, receiving a failing D grade.
In my experience with similar sized construction and infrastructure projects in one of our state’s capitals, I can say with confidence that there is one crucial factor that will make or break the success of this project: the involvement of skilled, certified project professionals from start to finish.
Projects of this scale and importance can be extremely complex. There are many players involved—including subject matter specialists, vendors, private organizations and government entities—who are tasked with setting budgets and timelines, making the repairs, and reporting on progress.
Because construction projects have so many moving parts, they are especially susceptible to scope creep. In fact, research from PMI estimates that for every $1 billion spent on construction projects, $127 million is wasted. With so many people closely following the I-95 repair, those involved in the project must ensure they are being good stewards of public funding, to successfully complete the project on budget and on time.
Making it happen
Project managers play an important role in making this happen. At its core, project management is about getting things done. With so many different roles, each with their own objectives, project managers are the rallying force, responsible for tracking and managing the countless steps, to meet the budget, and timeline requirements that comprise a complex project like the I-95 rebuild.
They must ensure that the process and each of the players are moving along as safely and efficiently as possible. Understanding the resources that are available for a project and scheduling a project so that it uses those resources effectively, is critical to a project’s success. So is establishing checkpoints: milestones that must be met to ensure the project is on track to achieve its goals.
For these reasons, project managers must be involved during the planning phase of a construction project—not just the building phase. Project managers also are responsible for managing the many stakeholders involved in projects of this magnitude—communicating with those involved in, and affected by, the project.
For the I-95 repair, this includes not only the public and private sector professionals who are physically working on the rebuild, but also the federal officials who provide the funding, the regulatory bodies that ensure the repairs are safe, and the general public that relies on the I-95 as a part of their daily lives.
Successful stakeholder management requires clearly communicating the project status, progress, and forecasts, as well as tailoring the communications approach to different stakeholder groups based on what information is necessary and helpful to them and deciphering how often these updates should be provided.
Projects that use taxpayer funds and serve the public are under intense scrutiny when it comes to safety and sustainability. Skilled project managers are adept in risk management—identifying potential risk events, from natural disasters to supply chain disruptions, and understanding how they can impact project outcomes and objectives. They are also capable of reducing project waste, allowing projects like the I-95 repair to be completed as sustainably as possible.
PMI has estimated that 25 million new project management-oriented employees are needed to meet global talent demands by 2030, with much of that need driven by the manufacturing and construction industries. For the I-95 rebuild, and the larger infrastructure overhaul promised as part of the IIJA, having capable project managers at the helm will determine whether these projects are completed in a safe, timely and budget-conscious manner.
This is true of any project, when the project impacts so many lives and involves taxpayer dollars, the stakes are much, much higher.
Dr. Aydin Tabrizi is a construction management and architectural engineering veteran and the VP of Membership at the Upstate New York Chapter of Project Management Institute.