PLANNED AS A PARKWAY: In 1932, the Regional Planning Federation (the predecessor agency to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission) proposed a parkway system around the Philadelphia area similar to that constructed by Robert Moses. Like the Moses parkways in New York, the four-lane parkways were to feature controlled access, stone-arch bridges, timber lightposts and natural vegetation.
Original plans for the Cobbs Creek Parkway called for a controlled-access route beginning at US 1 (City Line Avenue), continuing south along Cobbs Creek and the Philadelphia city line, and terminating at PA 291 (Essington Avenue). While the controlled-access parkway was never constructed, Cobbs Creek Parkway does exist today as a surface street through Upper Darby and Yeadon.
EXTENDING THE CROSSTOWN WEST AND SOUTH: Beginning in 1947, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission proposed several expressways to supplement the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76), the Delaware Expressway (I-95) and the Vine Street Expressway (I-676). The Cobbs Creek Expressway was to continue the route of the proposed Crosstown Expressway through Southwest Philadelphia to the Philadelphia International Airport. In addition to gaining support from Philadelphia planning officials, the expressway received support from two Delaware County legislators (G. Robert Watkins and Edwin E. Lippincott), as well as from Governor John S. Fine, who promised to speed legislation for its construction.
By 1957, the Pennsylvania Department of Highways and the Federal Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) approved the route as part of the Interstate highway system. The Cobbs Creek Expressway, and its extension, the Crosstown Expressway, was among the 1,500 miles of new urban routes added that year to the original Interstate highway system. In 1959, the Cobbs Creek-Crosstown route received a single designation: I-695.
PART OF THE FIVE-MILE-LOOP: The Philadelphia Urban Traffic and Transportation Board, a predecessor agency to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC), touted the Cobbs Creek Expressway as part of the southwest section of the "five-mile-loop" around Center City Philadelphia. The route was described as follows:
Beginning at the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76) at the current EXIT 346B (Grays Ferry Avenue), where the route takes over from the Crosstown Expressway, the Cobbs Creek Expressway was to continue west along the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) right-of-way to Baltimore Avenue (US 13). Interchanges were to be located at Woodland Avenue (near 49th Street) and 54th Street (near Thomas Street).
Where the Cobbs Creek Expressway met Baltimore Pike, there was to have been an interchange with the West Philadelphia (52nd Street) Expressway. Past the interchange, the Cobbs Creek Expressway was to continue west along Baltimore Avenue to the Philadelphia city line.
Just past the Philadelphia city line, the Cobbs Creek Expressway was to veer to the south along the west side of Cobbs Creek and Darby Creek in Delaware County, while an interchange with the Lansdowne Expressway was to be used for traffic continuing west through Delaware County.
Through Yeadon and Darby, the Cobbs Creek Expressway was to have interchanges at Cobbs Creek Parkway (between Darnell Street and Parmley Street) and Main Street (just east of Front Street).
The Cobbs Creek Expressway was to return east of the Philadelphia city line in the vicinity of Hook Road, continuing its route south along Lindbergh Boulevard with an interchange at 84th Street (Hook Road). The highway was to terminate at the Delaware Expressway (I-95), just west of the current EXIT 10 (PA 291 / Essington Avenue) near Philadelphia International Airport.
OPPOSITION SURFACES: As early as 1958, the Fairmount Park Commission raised objections to the route of the Cobbs Creek Expressway, citing that three holes of the Cobbs Creek Golf Course would be eliminated. Residents from Yeadon wished to have the expressway rerouted along the east bank of Cobbs Creek, but along the east bank stood Mount Moriah Cemetery, through which "no road or highway could be enforced" according to the original 1866 land grant.
In 1964, the Pennsylvania Department of Highways held initial public hearings on the routes and preliminary designs of the Cobbs Creek, Crosstown and Lansdowne expressways. Responding to these rancorous public hearings, state highway secretary Henry D. Harral pleaded for a greater show of "public responsibility" and cooperation with regard to the route of the expressway. Led by Governor William Scranton, state and city officials assured residents that they "would not act hastily" in developing alternatives.
RACING AGAINST THE CLOCK: Fearing the loss of the 90 percent Federal share of the $148 million cost, highway officials knew that time was not on their side. In 1967, the state highway department placed the 6.9-mile-long Cobbs Creek Expressway on its six-year construction program. However, early in 1969, the decision by Mayor James Tate not to construct the Crosstown Expressway placed the Cobbs Creek route in jeopardy. Subsequently, the state removed the Cobbs Creek-Crosstown route from its statewide program, and diverted the funds to Interstate projects in the Allentown-Bethlehem area.
By 1970, the Cobbs Creek Expressway received a new lease on life when transportation consultants Alan M. Vorhees and Associates released the "South Central Transportation Study," a series of recommendations regarding the proposed Crosstown Expressway and connecting routes. While the report urged against construction of the full-length Crosstown Expressway, it did advocate construction of the Cobbs Creek and Lansdowne expressways, leading to a "Grays Ferry Spur" (a vestige of the Crosstown Expressway). Specifically, the Cobbs Creek Expressway was to be a key component of improving access between Center City Philadelphia and Philadelphia International Airport. Victor W. Anckaitis, secretary of the newly organized Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), brought the Cobbs Creek-Crosstown route back into the statewide construction program.
The arrival of a new mayor in City Hall - Frank Rizzo - also signaled new hope for the Cobbs Creek Expressway. Rizzo contended that the route was needed to provide access to a newly expanded Philadelphia International Airport, and in conjunction with the Crosstown Expressway, furnish improved expressway service for Center City. Still, opposition to the Cobbs Creek Expressway continued to solidify among neighborhood and environmental groups, who feared that it would disrupt residential communities, and destroy wildlife among Cobbs Creek and Darby Creek.
A LONG, SLOW CANCELLATION: Despite valiant attempts through the early 1970's to revive the Cobbs Creek and Crosstown expressways, city and state officials eventually gave up on such attempts. On December 19, 1973, the DVRPC officially removed the Crosstown Expressway from its long-range capital program. Early in 1974, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission also withdrew plans for the Crosstown Expressway.
While both agencies kept the Cobbs Creek Expressway on its future capital program, the days of that expressway were also numbered. Furthermore, newly enacted Federal legislation severely restricted highway construction through parklands. The environmental impact process gave opponents the ammunition they needed to defeat the expressway.
On June 21, 1974, under new Federal legislation permitting the use of Interstate trade-in funds for mass transit, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) formally approved PennDOT's removal of I-695 from the Interstate highway system. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) used $85 million in Federal funds to pay for 100 commuter rail cars, 120 subway cars for the Broad Street line, 190 buses, and 110 trolleys.
Even after the removal of the I-695 designation (and its concomitant Federal funding) in 1974, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission kept the Cobbs Creek Expressway on its long-range capital program. However, when PennDOT halted funding of all proposed highway projects in 1977, they effectively thwarted hopes for future expressways within the city of Philadelphia. Subsequently, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission withdrew plans for the Cobbs Creek Expressway.
THE COBBS CREEK BIKEWAY: Along Cobbs Creek where the expressway was to run, PennDOT and the DVRPC have proposed a 10.2-mile-long bikeway stretching from Philadelphia International Airport north to City Line Avenue (US 1). It also is designed to connect transit stops and commercial areas. Construction of the $4 million Cobbs Creek Bikeway is scheduled to begin in 2005, pending final environmental approval.
SOURCES: Regional Plan of the Philadelphia Tri-State District, Regional Planning Federation (1932); "Philadelphia Expressway Program," Philadelphia City Planning Commission (1947); "Loop Highways To Cut Tie-Ups Urged for Area" by James P. McFadden, The Philadelphia Inquirer (12/22/1957); Pennsylvania: Keystone of the Interstate Highway System, Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia (1958); "City To Ask Further Study of Route of Crosstown Expressway Near 22nd Street" by H. James Laverty, The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (5/10/1964); "Route Planning Starts Soon on Cobbs Highway" by Claire Huff, The Philadelphia Inquirer (1/18/1965); "Cobbs Creek Expressway: Timeline," The Philadelphia Inquirer (6/07/1965); "Philadelphia's Comprehensive Plan for Expressways," Philadelphia City Planning Commission (1966); "State Drops Crosstown, Cobbs Creek Expressway Plans," The Philadelphia Inquirer (1/09/1969); 1985 Regional Transportation Plan, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (1969); "Expressway Construction Lags as Officials Heed Urban Outcry" by Donald Janson, The New York Times (2/15/1970); "Crosstown Link Still Just a Plan After 23 Years" by John F. Clancy and Gerald McKelvey, The Philadelphia Inquirer (6/22/1970); "Cobbs Creek Lives," Philadelphia Daily News (9/05/1970); "South Central Transportation Study," Alan M. Vorhees and Associates (1970); "The Crosstown Controversy: A Case Study" by Thomas A. Reiner, Robert J. Sugarman and Janet Scheff Reiner, University of Pennsylvania (1970); "Crosstown Is Zapped," Philadelphia Daily News (12/20/1973); "$85 Million Set To Update Area Transit System," Philadelphia Daily News (6/22/1974); Capital Program: City of Philadelphia, Philadelphia City Planning Commission (1978); "Schuylkill Carries the Load of Many Roads Left Unbuilt" by Paul Nussbaum, The Philadelphia Inquirer (8/19/1984); Parsons Brinckerhoff; Temple University-Urban Archives; Jeff Kitsko; Scott Kozel; Scott Oglesby; Len Pundt; Sandy Smith.
I-695 shield by Ralph Herman. Lightposts by Millerbernd Manufacturing Company. Bike route sign by Richard C. Moeur.