"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Why Did They Build The "Pottstown Expressway"?

     Last week I recounted how the completion of a limited-access highway between the Schuylkill River and Pottstown symbolized the shift in wealth and power from Philadelphia to the suburbs.  While not quite the last link in the bypassing of Philadelphia (the final section of I-476, the “Blue Route,” had not yet opened), the re-routing of U.S. 422 to King of Prussia would contribute further to the decline of the city.  It also provides insight into the process by which our super highways were designed and built.

     Hopes for a modern highway to connect King of Prussia and Pottstown date back a long way; the thought had probably occurred to everyone who had travelled along Germantown Pike the entire distance, from town to town and stop light to stop light, for the several decades it provided the best route available.  The real push began, however, after the Schuylkill Expressway appeared on the scene.  Not just Pottstown, but the communities between it and King of Prussia, began to express official hope that the Expressway could be “extended” to the northwest.  That didn’t happen, and no concrete plan (pun intended) emerged before the public backlash to Interstate Construction gathered force.  Financing became tighter, and construction of the system largely ground to a halt before the last portions of the grand plan had been implemented.  The lower section of what was to become U.S. Route #422 became caught up in the extremely complicated maneuvering that followed.

      Thus was born the pitch to build the "Pottstown Expressway”.  The construction of a limited-access highway to replace Germantown Pike was sold to the public largely for its benefit to the long-distressed borough of Pottstown, with the new Rt. 422 cast in the role of lifeline.  Of course, connecting anyone or anything to Pottstown was not the road’s true purpose, although that would have been an appreciated side benefit.  This substantial stretch of highway was constructed to foster development in what was then still largely rural land west of the then-existing Rt. 422 on Germantown Pike.  This was “undeveloped” land, with a few ancient roads crossing it.  The intersections of these roads and the new highway would create prime commercial space, while the rolling fields close to those intersections would be perfect locations for housing developments.  Thus, in obedience to the real estate dictum about location, location and location, exactly where the new highway would be built became quite important.
     Mind you, none of this was new, in any way.  There is always a web of influence, both financial and political, around selecting the exact path of a road, and there always has been.  A thorough study of the influences contending over this project would produce some interesting revelations, and not just about how the prime commercial locations came to be.  Close to the road’s southern end, for example, it takes a very roundabout—and thus expensive—path to avoid an estate known as “Fatland” that has been around since colonial times.  Whether this was due to concern for historic preservation or because the estate’s owner was Peter J. Camiel, who was chairman of both the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and the Philadelphia Democratic Party at the time, is officially uncertain.

     By the way, the “Pottstown Expressway” does not actually connect to Pottstown itself, but to another limited access highway, the “Pottstown Bypass” that is technically part of the same highway, Rt. 422.  This bypass at the highway’s northern end and the high bridge over the Schuylkill at its southern end were built first, both completed by 1967 (a portion of the Schuylkill Bridge opened earlier, due to a local traffic crisis).  The short term effect was to give drivers an easy way to avoid Pottstown altogether, while teasing drivers in King of Prussia with the vista of a promised future while they were being shuttled off onto a distinctly local road, Pa. Rt. 363.  The 13-mile gap between the two was subject to numerous delays, for a multitude of reasons.  An intermediate section opened in 1978, but the Pottstown Expressway did not open from end to end until 1985.  The total cost of the highway by that time had reached  $102 million.

     The 20-year delay in the road’s construction made all the difference.  Some investors had speculated early, but after the exact route of the road was known (not to be confused with “publicly known”) the jockeying for property and financing really began.  The spasmodic appearance of the road’s sections then proceeded to play hell with even these calculations, reminding all involved that while location, location and location are important, timing is, in fact, everything.  Thus, while the eventual profit from development along the new route was basically guaranteed, the vagaries of the financial and real estate sectors served to enrich some but not others, largely according to their timing.

     Once the new highway was fully opened between King of Prussia, and christened U.S. Route 422, development did indeed take off.  It has included pharmaceutical laboratories, churches and schools, in addition to the guaranteed housing developments and shopping centers.  “Development” extends along service roads parallel to Rt. 422, and for short distances along each of the roads that intersect it, as everyone could have predicted

     But what about Pottstown?  What has been the road’s effect on it?  The most obvious physical result has been the Hanover Square Town Homes, at the foot of the old industrial district.  One hopes that its residents contribute to downtown Pottstown (an easy walking distance) in their off-hours, because few will probably work there.  The company’s sales pitch on its website features this statement:  “Hanover Square lies just off Route 422 and the Route 202 corridor [this last is something of a stretch], offering easy access to Philadelphia, 35 miles to the Southeast, and Reading, 20 miles to the northwest.”  Clearly, the emphasis is not local.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t a step forward for the borough, which could use an influx of people who can afford such housing.
     Has U.S. Route 422 brought other measurable benefits to Pottstown?  I’d like to hear more from local residents on this point.

     While how much benefit the new Rt. 422 has been to Pottstown is debatable, there is no question as to its effect on all that undeveloped land along its path.  In the final analysis the new road did exactly what it was intended to do:  earn a great deal of money for those businessmen whose good political connections allowed them to purchase land in the right place at the right time, along with those politicians with good business connections.

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