Connecting state and local government leaders
The Pennsylvania governor’s handling of the disaster has won over some critics. But will it help win over a divided legislature?
Twelve days after a section of one of the country’s busiest highways collapsed in flames, Pennsylvania 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 advisor, was there. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney was too. They were surrounded by workers in white hard hats and yellow reflector vests. At the center, wearing a tie-less white dress shirt and a 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 sudden bridge failure in northeastern Philadelphia on June 11 marked the kind of trial-by-fire that new governors often face in their early days, which can either bolster their political standing or stymie their other priorities. 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 an ability to tout that message far and wide. “The key was ‘all hands on deck,’” he told Fox News. It was “ingenuity in Philadelphia meets Philly toughness.”
The state-led construction team used several creative approaches to help speed the construction of the new bypass.
Crews used “foam glass” aggregate—basically, a gravel-like material made of grinded 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.
SEPTA, the local transit agency, boosted service to help motorists avoid the bottleneck.
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’s 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.
Shapiro also embraced the celebrity of a local man who became internet-famous after he told a TV reporter about waking up to the news of the collapsed bridge. The man, Peter McLaughlin, was at the news conference for the road reopening, and the governor gave him a shoutout. “I saw you on the internet,” he said.
Shapiro took office in January, after handily defeating Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who touted election conspiracies and had the backing of former President Donald Trump. Shapiro, who is Jewish and was the attorney general before becoming governor, campaigned on protecting election integrity and combating extremism.
Once inaugurated, Shapiro faced an unusual political situation these days: a split legislature. Democrats (barely) control the House, and Republicans control the state Senate.
The governor made overtures to Republicans early in his tenure. As his secretary of state, he appointed a Republican election official from Philadelphia. Shapiro also tapped a former GOP lawmaker who led the Senate appropriations committee as his revenue secretary.
Still, lawmakers are far from agreeing to a budget a week before the fiscal year ends. Republicans have chafed at not being included in Democrats’ budget negotiations, while progressive Democrats have balked at Shapiro’s openness to school vouchers.
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 based in Washington, D.C.