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July 22, 2015

Few details yet on Camden's plans for Pope Francis' visit

No decision yet on closing Ben Franklin Bridge during event

Pope Francis Transportation
New Jersey pope arrival press conference Michael Phillis/PhillyVoice

At a press conference held Wednesday in South Jersey, officials talked about their efforts to keep people safe during the pope's visit in late September.

South Jersey law enforcement and regional transportation officials on Wednesday highlighted New Jersey's preparation for the pope's visit to Philadelphia in September by emphasizing their cooperation without announcing many security or travel specifics during a press conference at Camden County's emergency operations center.

“Millions of people are expected to gather in the Philadelphia area,” said Camden County Freeholder Michelle Gentek. “It is imperative that we of southern New Jersey prepare and plan accordingly.

“All of us behind the scenes will be working really hard to keep all of you safe.”

While there have been many announcements about Philadelphia's preparation for the pope's arrival, Wednesday's press conference focused on work in New Jersey. Officials said planning started around the same time Pope Francis’ visit was announced last November. The pope is scheduled to be in Philadelphia the weekend of Sept. 26 and 27. His visit will present security and travel challenges for organizers who predict that 1.5 million people will make their way into the city to see him.

So far, however, details about which roads will be closed, whether the Ben Franklin Bridge will be closed to traffic, how security will be deployed and how much the efforts will cost have not been released.

“We haven’t done those projections yet,” said Robin Blaker, the director of public safety for Camden County, in regard to a question about how expensive security might be. He added that an estimate was not yet available because plans were still being developed.

Officials also did not provide estimates about the number of people they expect to travel to Philadelphia from New Jersey, but they emphasized that those who are traveling to Philadelphia to see the pope should expect a lot of walking and long lines.

John Hanson, CEO of the Delaware River Port Authority, said it was hard to estimate crowds because the pope had regularly attracted more people than expected.

Asked about what kind of security people might see on the ground, he said police were looking at the event from every angle, but, “if you are asking me to give you the specific plans, of course not, I’m not going to do that.”

Local planning is complicated by the scale of the event. The pope’s safety is being handled by federal authorities, including the Secret Service, who must dictate details like road closures to local officials.

A recent Philadelphia Inquirer article said officials were considering closing the Ben Franklin Bridge to car traffic. Hanson cautioned that nothing was clear at this point and it would be premature to say one way or the other.

“We are waiting to see what the plans are,” Hanson said. “If the roads that go from the bridge on the [Philadelphia] side are blocked or don’t go anywhere … there won't be any traffic on the bridge.”

Blaker emphasized that law enforcement was in constant communication, adding that they had new radio capabilities allowing for better connectivity between law enforcement departments.

“We are all proud and confident in our collaborative planning effort,” he said.

Transportation into the city is expected to be a challenge regardless of how visitors are trying to arrive. Organizers with the pope’s visit advise against getting there by car, and officials have set up special plans for public transportation. Special limited one- and two-day passes for PATCO are available but must be purchased in advance. The line will be running limited routes. The same will be true for SEPTA, which will have only 18 of its stations open that weekend.

Hanson said PATCO trains had a capacity of about 10,000 passengers an hour, and tickets would be limited.

"Once the tickets are gone, they are gone," he said.

The press conference occurred days after SEPTA’s website was deluged with visitors vying for one of 175,000 Regional Rail papal passes, causing the site to crash and forcing the agency to regroup and suspend sales. PATCO's site is still running.

With about nine weeks to go until the pope's arrival, officials said that the public should stay tuned for updates.

As to when more details might come?

“Probably in the coming weeks,” said Capt. Al Handy of the Camden County Police.