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Pennsylvania bridge collapse can be Josh Shapiro’s presidential moment — but he has to earn it

By June 17, 2023No Comments

(This column originally appeared in The Hill)

For the past two years, my wife and I have spent a few winter weeks on Florida’s Sanibel Island, an amazing place — except for last year. Last year, Hurricane Ian wreaked havoc on the island, destroying the Sanibel Causeway, a critical bridge that connects the island’s residents and businesses to the mainland. It was truly a disaster.

But Florida’s governor (and now presidential candidate) Ron DeSantis stepped up. Realizing the importance of this road to the local economy, he marshalled both federal and state resources and oversaw a temporary reconstruction of the bridge that had it back up in operation in an astonishing 15 days.

This isn’t the first time a governor has embodied the qualities of leadership. In 1994, California Gov. Pete Wilson oversaw reconstruction of the I-10 highway after a portion was destroyed by the Northridge earthquake in a mere 84 days. This was after he was told that it could take as much as 26 months. The same happened just five years before in California to then-Gov. George Deukmejian, when the Bay Bridge collapsed as a result of an earthquake in San Francisco. That bridge was back up in operation in only a month.

Which brings me to Josh Shapiro. He’s my governor in Pennsylvania.

Last weekend, a vital portion of I-95 in Philadelphia collapsed as a result of a truck fire. As I write this, both lanes of the highway are completely shut down and a man — the driver — lost his life. The tragedy notwithstanding, the aftermath has caused a very big problem for residents, travelers and business owners.

How big a problem? According to various reports from the Philadelphia Inquirer, more than 160,000 vehicles travel this section of the I-95 highway daily, with an estimated 8 percent of those being tractor trailers. The result? A supply chain “headache” across the East Coast and an “outsized” impact on commuters and shipping. Already local business owners are feeling the effect, with one auto shop owner complaining that “nobody’s really getting any answers yet.”

So yeah, this is a big deal. And it needs fixing. So what’s our governor going to do?

Shapiro, like the other governors I mentioned above, has been told that the repair of the roadway would take “some number of months.” Granted, construction companies like to be conservative and not over-promise. But this is not a good answer. Businesses are suffering.

Shapiro has been widely touted as a potential future presidential candidate. And I can certainly understand why. He’s a moderate Democrat with decades of local experience. He’s a good guy. And this is his moment. Politicians spend a lot of time talking, but the great ones execute. Now is his time.

So far, he’s been stepping up and saying the right things. He announced that immediate steps would be taken to build a temporary roadway. He signed an emergency declaration freeing up $7 million of state funds for reconstruction. He’s promised that the reconstruction site will be livestreamed to give residents a first-hand, real-time view of the progress (I like that idea) and he’s repeated several times that the work will be done “as quickly as possible.”

“We realize this is a challenge for motorists,” Shapiro said in a press conference this week. “That’s why these guys are working their tails off to get it done as quickly as possible.”

But he needs to do more. This is an opportunity to show the world what kind of leader he is and how governments can do good. Considering how many lives are affected, he should be making this unfortunate tragedy a signature event in his administration.

So what else does Shapiro need to do?

Form an emergency bipartisan reconstruction group of government representatives and industry people. Chair that group, and ask all members to put their egos, political leanings and emotions aside. Agree on a specific plan for fixing the highway. Establish clear timelines and hold each owner of each task accountable. Get feedback from all parties. Brace for problems and handle them calmly. Cheerlead, cajole and coach. Meet daily. And then communicate your progress to the public.

This is what any project manager, CEO or business owner would do when faced with a large challenge. If the challenge is big enough, it becomes their highest priority. This challenge should be Shapiro’s biggest priority.

This is Shapiro’s presidential moment. Can he lead? Can he execute? Can he solve problems and fix a situation that is affecting so many lives? If Shapiro is able to step up and oversee a fast solution to this problem, he stands to earn the respect — and a future vote — from many people on both sides of the aisle.

I’m a registered Republican. I voted for him last November. I would like to vote for him higher office too — assuming he earns it.

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