2024 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Tony Mento, Camille Otto, Hari Kalla  

Provided critical coordination as well as technical expertise that led to the reopening of a major interstate highway in Philadelphia less than two weeks after a fiery gasoline tanker crash destroyed a bridge over an exit ramp.

When a tanker truck loaded with gasoline overturned and caught fire under an Interstate 95 overpass just outside Philadelphia on June 11, 2023, the heat was so intense that it collapsed a segment of the northbound bridge and weakened the southbound lanes, halting traffic on a major artery that handles 160,000 travelers a day. 

A team from the Federal Highway Administration moved swiftly with technical know-how and financial assistance, working alongside Pennsylvania state and local officials to reestablish the highway within 12 days of the disaster. Despite an assumption that it would take months or even years, “they got the thing opened in two weeks,” said Brian Fouch, the agency’s associate administrator for public lands. 

“An extraordinary situation like the Interstate 95 bridge collapse requires an extraordinary response, and that’s exactly what the Federal Highway Administration provided,” said FHWA Administrator Shailen Bhatt. “The team helped Pennsylvania get the bridge reopened and the people in the region moving along I-95 in record time and made a difference in the lives of the people and the community affected by the collapse.”  

Federal team steps up 

The federal team stepped up “from the moment of that phone call on that Sunday in June,” said Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Michael Carroll. 

The FHWA credited a team led by Tony Mento with playing leading roles in the seemingly miraculous turnaround. Mento, the FHWA director of project management and engineering at the time, recently retired after 35 years at the agency. The team also included Camille Otto, an FHWA deputy division administrator, and Hari Kalla, associate administrator of the agency’s Office of Infrastructure.  

Otto was the FHWA’s main coordinator on-site, while Mento was the federal government’s on-site engineering technical expert. He also helped the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation navigate federal rules on complying with the use of federal money.  

Kalla worked from the agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, providing technical expertise and helping to provide an initial $3 million from the FHWA’s Emergency Relief Program for response within 24 hours. 

The efforts of these federal officials and others helped Pennsylvania identify local sourcing and contracting to quickly implement innovative repair and replacement approaches, including the use of recycled glass fill material that’s lighter than gravel. They quickly opened lanes to traffic in both directions while they began rebuilding the destroyed spans.  

The federal team also helped with coordination across state and local lines to reroute truck traffic through New Jersey, put up digital signs to inform the public, and promote mass transit and rail as commuter travel alternatives. 

“It’s an example of government at its best in terms of being responsive, keeping the public safe and then recovering in such a short time frame,” said Mayela Sosa, an FHWA regional director of field services. 

Concern about economic disruption 

The worry over economic disruption was palpable from the start. President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg stressed the importance of the recovery by visiting the site. After all, “I-95 didn’t just affect Pennsylvania,” Fouch said. “I-95 affects the whole Northeast and South.” 

The rebuilding created such intense interest that Philadelphia sports bars showed live webcam coverage.  

“It was kind of funny that at one point we were down in the area, they were playing it on TV in sports bars, as though you would be watching baseball, and instead you’re watching I-95 being rebuilt,” Otto said. 

Kalla said it helped that his agency had been working already on ways to speed up emergency funding. Still, authorities said they were stunned at the speed of repair and replacement work. 

The permanent new northbound and southbound structures are targeted for June 2024 completion, less than one year after the fire. 

“I think the key to our success is that whenever you’re faced with these transportation emergencies, it’s the collective minds, when all of these professionals come together,” Mento said. “It’s really amazing what people do when they want to work together.”