How Pennsylvania’s Governor Turned A Collapsed Bridge Into A Political Win

When it comes to infrastructure repair jobs, this one had everything: a 24/7 livestream, TikTok star construction workers, a giant NASCAR jet dryer, Gritty and the Phillie Phanatic riding on a firetruck. In June, a tanker truck crashed underneath Interstate 95 — a critical highway through Philadelphia that sees around 160,000 vehicles per day — killing the driver and causing the overpass to collapse. Experts originally estimated it could take months to repair the highway and reopen the vital artery, but less than two weeks later, six new temporary lanes were opened to allow traffic to flow while the permanent repairs are completed. 

The quick repair was hailed as a big political win for rookie Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro — with some people even saying it could be the centerpiece of a potential future campaign for president. And indeed, Shapiro enjoyed a boost in his approval rating as repairs were wrapping up and the highway reopened. In March, a poll from the Commonwealth Foundation/Bullfinch Group showed 54 percent of Pennsylvania voters approved of the job Shapiro was doing. When the same firm polled again after the collapse, his approval rating had risen to 60 percent. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted around the time of the reopening also showed Shapiro with a healthy approval rating of 57 percent, with 74 percent of voters saying they approved of Shapiro’s handling of the I-95 collapse in particular.

It’s not shocking to see competent governance rewarded at the polls, but it’s not always guaranteed to shake out this way, either. Voters tend to be reactive to disasters and can be just as quick to blame political leaders as to give credit when things go well. In this case, there were a few things working in Shapiro’s favor — a honeymoon period for new governors, a clear problem and solution, and support from all levels of government — as well as some savvy moves on his part that helped turn this into a political win. 

Since stepping into the role in January, Shapiro and eight other rookie governors have enjoyed a typical honeymoon period during which voters, still buzzing from the previous election and excited about a fresh face in office, view their new governor favorably. While Shapiro doesn’t top the list of rookie governors, according to an average of polls of their approval and disapproval ratings, when you dig a little deeper he’s performing noticeably well. The four governors with higher net approval ratings than him (Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey and Maryland Gov. Wes Moore) all lead states where their political party is dominant, giving them a leg up on approval. By comparison, Shapiro is outpolling the other two rookie governors in purple states like Pennsylvania (Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo and Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs), and he’s even more popular than two governors of more partisan states (Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen and Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek). 

Rookie governors tend to enjoy a honeymoon period

Average share of respondents in nine states who said they approved or disapproved of their governor’s job performance, according to polls conducted since Jan. 1

HI Josh Green D 62% 22% +40
AR Sarah Huckabee Sanders R 61 27 +34
MA Maura Healey D 56 23 +34
MD Wes Moore D 54 23 +32
PA Josh Shapiro D 56 26 +30
NV Joe Lombardo R 48 26 +22
NE Jim Pillen R 45 30 +15
AZ Katie Hobbs D 46 37 +9
OR Tina Kotek D 42 39 +3

Numbers for Lombardo and Shapiro are an average of four polls each; numbers for Moore are an average of three polls; numbers for Hobbs and Healey are an average of two polls each. Numbers for all other governors are based on one poll each.

Source: Polls

It also helped that, while disastrous and deadly, the overpass collapse was a contained, specific problem with a clear solution — fix the bridge and get traffic running again — according to David King, a transportation and urban planning professor at Arizona State University. “It’s a rare occasion in politics where you have a clearly defined problem,” King said. “With a road collapse, it’s very clear what needs to happen and everybody agrees on what the preferred outcome is.” The project was served by the fact that it was such a critical transportation artery that simply had to get repaired, making its reopening, while successful, not exactly unprecedented, as Jake Blumgart recently wrote in The Atlantic.

The obvious problem and solution meant that there was no partisan bickering over what to do, either, and it resulted in bipartisan support from voters. In that Quinnipiac poll, 34 percent of Republican voters said they approved of the job Shapiro was doing as governor, but 65 percent approved of how he handled reopening I-95. 

“Infrastructure is something that can still allow for a degree of bipartisan appraisal,” said Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College. “It doesn’t matter who you are — Republican, Democrat, independent — if it’s open, it’s open, if it’s closed, it is. If anything, [this] lends itself to a moment that transcends the partisan lens that we view things [through].”

Finally, because the need to reopen the highway was so glaringly obvious, the repair project garnered support from all levels of government, along with full funding from the feds, making it even easier for Shapiro to make fast work of the temporary repairs. 

This isn’t to take away all credit from Shapiro. The governor and his team made some savvy decisions to maximize the positive vibes from reopening the highway. Shapiro was constantly photographed overseeing the project, set up a live stream of the crews working 24/7 and made a few headline-grabbing choices — like that decision to borrow a jet turbine from nearby Pocono Raceway to help dry rain-wet asphalt so it could be painted — that turned what could have been a dry, practical affair into a minor media spectacle. 

But like all honeymoons, this period will eventually end, and the electorate is a fickle sweetheart. It will still take months for the overpass to be completely reconstructed, and the limited temporary lanes are still slowing traffic compared to before the collapse, which could gradually erode the warm fuzzies generated by the quicker-than-expected reopening, King said. 

“It’s going to take some of the shine off of the amazing work of getting something open inside of two weeks,” King said. “We as people have very short memories, especially when it comes to traffic congestion.”

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