PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Philadelphia drivers know to avoid the routinely congested Schuylkill Expressway under normal circumstances. Come the last weekend of September, they won’t have a choice.
Pope Francis’ two-day trip to the City of Brotherly Love will mean the closure of 25 miles of highway, including part of the expressway, and a major bridge to New Jersey – and a ban on cars entering an area of downtown roughly 18 times larger than Vatican City, officials said Wednesday.
They’re posting police at the boundaries of the 3-square-mile traffic zone, bringing in 1,000 state troopers, calling in the National Guard to help with traffic control and warning people they’ll likely be walking “at least a few miles.”
The pope is expected to participate in the concluding ceremony Sept. 26 of the World Meeting of Families – the triennial Roman Catholic conference that is attracting him to Philadelphia – and to celebrate an outdoor Sunday Mass on Sept. 27.
Each event is expected to draw more than 1 million people to the city’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a wide scenic boulevard that runs through Philadelphia’s museum district, ending at the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art that were popularized by the movie “Rocky.”
“Private vehicles will really not be a viable option,” Mayor Michael Nutter said at a news conference.
The bulk of the road and bridge shutdowns will take place after the close of business Friday, Sept. 25 – the night before Francis arrives. Cars already in the traffic zone – from the Delaware River to an area west of the Schuylkill River – will be permitted to move within it but won’t be allowed back in once they leave.
“If you move, you lose,” Nutter said, echoing a reporter’s summation of the restrictions.
Bicycles will be allowed in and out of the zone at all times, however.
The nearly 2-mile-long Benjamin Franklin Bridge, which crosses the Delaware River and handles about 100,000 cars on a normal workday, will be closed to vehicles from 10 p.m. Friday, Sept. 25, to about noon Monday, Sept. 28. The bridge will remain open to pedestrians and PATCO Speed Line rail service will continue to run across the span.
Interstate 76, known in Philadelphia as the Schuylkill Expressway, and the Vine Street Expressway through downtown Philadelphia, will also close Friday, Sept. 25, along with a 2-mile portion of U.S. Route 1 near the seminary where Francis is expected to stay.
Interstate 95 will remain open to traffic, but some ramps will be closed.
“These roads closures are necessary for public safety, to effectively move emergency vehicles, as well as a large number of buses that are expected,” state transportation secretary Leslie Richards said.
Francis is visiting Washington, D.C., and New York before his weekend in Philadelphia. He is scheduled to depart Philadelphia International Airport for Rome at 8 p.m. on Sept. 27.
Officials said the timing of when the closed highways would reopen is still being worked out.
Some business owners within the traffic zone have said they have been encouraged to close for a three-day weekend. Others, including the city’s hospitals, are bringing in cots for workers to sleep and are making arrangements to ensure employees can get to work.
City officials have faced criticism in recent weeks from residents upset with a lack of information on how the visit would affect traffic, business and daily life. Nutter acknowledged that unease at the news conference with transportation and law enforcement officials and urged residents to plan ahead.
“I get it. We get it,” Nutter said. “Yes, our daily routine will be disrupted. Sometimes in minor ways. Sometimes in very significant ways. But there will certainly be some level of disruption.”
Planners have pushed mass transit as an alternative to driving, but a regional transit agency said Wednesday interest in special commuter rail passes for the weekend of the pope’s visit was lower than anticipated.
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority said about 20,000 of the commuter rail tickets remained unsold after an online lottery Monday. The agency, which is capping ridership at 175,000 for each of the two days, said it received requests for 328,045 passes.
The number of subway riders won’t be limited, but trains won’t make all their regular stops, and special passes sold through an upcoming lottery will be required for certain trolley lines and the Norristown High Speed Line.
Much like a long-anticipated snowstorm, the visit will affect other routines. The city’s court system will shut down starting Wednesday, Sept. 23. Public schools will be closed the following Friday.
“This is the biggest and most important event the city has ever seen,” World Meeting Executive Director Donna Crilley Farrell said. “But we’ve done it before and we’ve got this. Let’s enjoy it and let’s celebrate it.”
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