By Michael Hill
Camden County officials anticipate some 2 million pilgrims will journey to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis’ visit in September.
“Pope Francis definitely is reaching out to everyone. For everyone it’s a different meaning for them. He’s more of a grassroots pope. He gets out. He wants to shake your hands,” said Michelle Gentk-Mayer.
How many pilgrims will pass through South Jersey is just a guess at this point. But, the preparation and collaboration among local, state and federal agencies have been underway for months.
“We partnered with some of the best of the best for this event,” said Camden County Prosecutor’s Office Incident Commander Fred Lang.
While Pope Francis has no scheduled visits for this side of the Delaware River, you would never know it with the level of coordination and planning South Jersey has undertaken.
“There is a common perception that when an event or an incident occurs in Philadelphia, there is no impact across the Delaware in South Jersey. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Camden County Director of Public Safety Robin Blaker.
Law enforcers want to make sure the lines of communication are seamless so Camden County has a new radio system that would allow South Jersey first responders to communicate with counterparts across the river.
“Our Office of Emergency Management has diligently worked with our neighboring counties, including Burlington and Gloucester, to ensure any possible incident that arises during the pope’s visit has been accounted and planned for,” Blaker said.
Camden County anticipates having to accommodate some 1,100 charter buses. Some will park along the river.
The Delaware River Port Authority is considering closing the Franklin Bridge to vehicles. It depends on which roads will be closed on the Philadelphia side.
On the weekend when the pope comes to the area, PATCO plans to run express trains every four minutes from Lindenwold, Woodcrest, Ferry Avenue and Broadway stations to Ninth/10th Street in Philadelphia, moving about 10,000 passengers per hour each day. But pilgrims must buy their $5 and $10 tickets in advance.
“‘these crowds that we’re going to see, the number of people making this pilgrimage, is really unprecedented. People who decide to come should expect crowds and congestion, should expect long lines on the roads, on the sidewalks and virtually for virtually anything that they are accessing they should expect to walk long distances,” said DRPA CEO John Hanson.
Officials say if pilgrims plan to drive to the area, they should stay tuned for road closures and whether they should leave the transporting to someone else.