Firefighters work at the site of a collapsed portion of...

Firefighters work at the site of a collapsed portion of Interstate 95, caused by a vehicle fire, in Philadelphia, on Sunday. Credit: AFP via Getty Images/Kena Betancur

The harrowing images of broken slabs of concrete and rubble left in the wake of a collapsed section of a major Pennsylvania highway might seem like a scene that could never happen here.

The combination of an elevated roadway and an enormous tanker fire is an extraordinary circumstance, the argument goes. Long Island doesn't have to worry about its roads collapsing, about critical arteries being out of commission for months …

Or do we?

The road collapse on Interstate 95 in northeast Philadelphia occurred after a tractor-trailer driver lost control around an exit ramp curve, leading a tanker holding 8,500 gallons of gasoline to tip over and rupture, bursting into flames and killing the driver.

While there's so much we don't yet know about Sunday's tragedy, it already is wreaking havoc on tens of thousands of commuters and businesses that depend on the I-95 corridor. The increased demand strained the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, the public transit system known as SEPTA, even as it attempts to add service and staff. But the detours and challenges will soon become a new normal, adversely affecting summer travel and even the broader economy.

Closer to home, drivers here are dependent on a limited network of highways and parkways and local roads that should be able to get us on and off Long Island. But what happens if one of those roads collapses or suffers another catastrophe?

Consider the ramifications of a single bad accident, such as Monday's early-morning fatal crash on the westbound side of the Long Island Expressway, which closed the eastbound lanes for about four hours, the westbound side for eight. Or the impact of the sinkhole on Lido Boulevard, first reported on May 31, which is still being repaired and has jammed traffic for weeks.

And that was just a sinkhole.

Long Island's older roads, and those in disrepair, may be more vulnerable than newer ones. But the I-95 stretch was reconstructed just a few years ago, showing that at some point, any road could buckle under enough heat and stress. Every roadway across the Island — old and new — is at risk. 

What would we do if those images of broken concrete were of our own roads, if a section of one of our main arteries collapsed? Though we'd like to think such an incident would never happen here, are we ready if it did?

The realistic answer: No.

In Philadelphia, there was no game plan for this, leaving officials scrambling.

Long Island and New York State officials would be wise to pay attention. The region's lack of adequate redundancies, the limitations of its public transit system, and the particular constraints on truck and bus routes put us in a potentially precarious position if such a tragedy unfolded here. And the waves of impact could be enormous — on emergency services, on our families and businesses, on the economy and health care, on our day-to-day lives.

Also worth thinking about: It takes us hours to clear an accident and weeks to fix a sinkhole. In Philadelphia, the I-95 repairs are expected to take months. What would Long Island do if one of its significant routes was compromised for that long? And what can the region do to make sure emergency situations are addressed in more urgent time frames? 

These are questions without easy answers. But we have to start asking them — and answering them — before the images are ours.

Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.

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