by Kevin Dicciani
At a crowded June Development Review Committee meeting, representatives of the Philadelphia Streets Department heard a slew of complaints from residents about the current state of local roads and the lack of communication between the department and the community regarding present and future plans for reconstruction in the area. Of particular concern to the audience was the installation several months ago of speed cushions in East Chestnut Hill.
Michael Carroll, deputy commissioner of transportation for the Streets Department, opened the presentation by discussing how his unit prioritizes which streets to pave throughout Philadelphia.
Carroll said the streets are judged by whether they are primary, secondary or tertiary. The primary streets are the high-volume roads, a majority of which are PennDOT’s responsibility. The Streets Department is in charge of most of the secondary and tertiary streets, which still leaves more than 1,000 miles of actual street surface needing to be repaved. Altogether there are a total of 2,500 miles of streets in Philadelphia, Carroll said. The department’s goal is to repair about 130 miles of it a year.
One of the main reasons repaving has slowed, Carroll said, is that since the early ’90s, with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, there is a requirement to rebuild the ramps along every intersection the department paves. Carroll said the task is very expensive because the ramps need to be designed to fit the standards set forth by the federal government.
Within the past few years, Carroll said the department has spent more money on rebuilding the ramps than they have in paving the streets. In one year, 75 percent of the department’s capital budget for paving was spent on rebuilding ramps.
The confluence of the issues of money and time put the department in an almost desperate situation, Carroll said.
“If your street was actually getting paved, it was either in such bad condition that we knew it couldn’t make it one more year before it got repaved, or it was something that could be paved because we found the fundings or a grant opportunity for,” Carroll said.
But Carroll said the department has recently implemented some changes to help streamline the repaving process. He said the department is now prioritizing which ramps to fix based on if they are in areas with higher pedestrian volumes or have populations that have demonstrated a greater need for them.
Another way to advance the process is a newly implemented rating system. Darin Gatti, chief engineer and surveyor for the Streets Department, said the department has instituted a uniform rating system – one not completely finished yet – to gauge the conditions of each and every street in the city. After the streets are graded, the department works down the list, starting from the worst. Thus far, the Streets Department has finished reviewing half of the city’s streets, having completed rating most of the primary roads and at this moment are working on the secondary streets, with tertiary streets to follow.
John Landis, co-chair of the DRC, asked whether or not there is some role the community can play in helping them identify which roads should be a repaving priority. He said, for example, there is a pressing need to fix the intersection of Winston Road and Mermaid Lane.
“It’s in terrible shape,” Landis said, “and no one seems to be looking after it.”
Stephen Lorenz, chief highway engineer for the Streets Department, said the intersection is absolutely in need of work. He said the decorative, herringbone cobblestones were installed at some point during the late ’70s, which at the time were very expensive and difficult to install. The intersection has not been maintained since, he said.
Lorenz said he is unsure where the street falls in the rating system. He said the department would consult the historic streets list and see if there is any capital funding to upgrade the road with the same cobblestones, or repave it anew altogether with stamped asphalt.
Other factors will decide the fate of that intersection as well. Carroll said the state has a very narrow range of materials that they want to use, and if they were to install materials that are not on that list, the financial burden would fall on the Streets Department, which is “cash strapped” when it comes to the paving operations.
Lorenz said the Streets Department has “always been willing to work with the community and will continue to do that.”
Following that statement, Richard Snowden, a Chestnut Hill resident and Chestnut Hill Community Association board member who was in attendance for the meeting, expressed his concern at the recent construction in the area, especially the installation of speed cushions because, he said, the community was never notified.
Snowden said if the Streets Department wanted to work within the neighborhood it needs to come to the community far in advance.
“This is not what has occurred here,” Snowden said. “What we have had is a situation where we all woke up and suddenly there were cushions on roads all over Chestnut Hill, and there was no input from this community. I think that’s been an extremely distressing situation, and you can’t have buy-in and potential help in paying for these things if you don’t come and talk to us well in advance.”
Carroll said the speed cushions are the legacy of requests that were made up to 10 years ago by residents, RCO’s of various community organizations, and “council people.” When the funds became available, which Carroll said came very easily due to a grant from the state which allowed the department to work on traffic calming, the decision was made to follow up on these requests.
“We should have come back to the community and talked to the people who live in the neighborhood before the cushions showed up,” Carroll said. “They should not have just shown up or been discovered by driving over them. That’s a lesson learned.”
At this time the policy to request traffic calming measures requires that 75 percent of neighbors on a block need to sign a petition. Carroll said if a councilperson comes to the Streets Department and points out a problematic area, it is likely to perform a study there. Depending on the location of the road and the urgency of the request, it may not wait to get a petition from the neighbors.
Despite the obvious disapproval of the speed cushions shown by residents at the meeting, Carroll said there were people not in attendance who “may have asked for the things that you’re saying no one asked for,” and said he had to honor them as much as the people in the room.
Nonetheless, Carroll said the point of all the reconstruction is not to impose new projects on the neighborhood.
“We have no interest in that,” Carroll said. “This stuff costs money that we can spend on other things in other neighborhoods where it’s appreciated. I think people need to understand that we don’t get any benefit from putting things on peoples’ streets that they don’t want.”
One member of the audience asked how the Streets Department could install speed cushions on a road like E. Gravers Lane when there is an excess of potholes lining the street. To see that new work put in place, while all the potholes remain, he said, is implausible.
Lorenz said the reason the Streets Department has yet to mill and pave E. Gravers Lane is because there is a Philadelphia Water Department project in the works to replace water mains along the street. Once that work is done, Lorenz said the department will be programming that street for paving. He said he is unsure whether the paving will be done by the PWD or the Streets Department. Regardless, he said, the road will be paved.
A neighbor asked the Streets Department representatives if the department planned to install speed cushions on East Evergreen Avenue, as there are markings on the road to designate where they will be placed.
Carroll said that, based on the dismay residents expressed about the speed cushions at the meeting, “we will not put those speed cushions in.” If people happen to want them there, he continued, they can go through the aforementioned process of getting residents who live on the street to fill out a petition.
The conversation then moved on to the fate of the Bells Mill Road project. Back in January, the Streets Department met with residents to discuss its plans for the reconstruction of the road, which included the reconstruction of the culvert bridge on E. Bells Mill Road, narrowing the cartway, adding sidewalks and curbs, and adding inlets to help aid stormwater runoff. The Streets Department and residents could not reach an agreement over the final plans. Residents were told that if too many parts of the project were altered it would be abandoned and they would lose federal and state funding. The project was estimated to cost around $3.5 million dollars.
Gatti said, at the request of the community, the Streets Department was not moving forward with the Bells Mill project as it was presented. What happens now, he said, is that the department needs to go back to the Federal Highway Administration and have the project canceled before it can reallocate the grant money to use for anything else. Gatti said the department has already petitioned FHWA for the “no-build option.”
Some residents were disappointed at hearing about the project being shelved. Gatti said once the department hears back from FHWA and he sees what kind of funds are made available to him, he will see what options can be afforded to the project. However, due to the significant amount of modifications previously requested by the neighbors, the department was not permitted to go move forward with its plans, and the only way to move forward with the project is to cancel it and reallocate the funding. Currently the plan is just to resurface the street.
Landis said he doesn’t want to “just resurface a road that’s falling apart.”
Gatti said the only way to improve the condition of the road is to put in curbs, something nearby residents opposed at the previous meeting.
“Unfortunately that’s the engineering fact,” Gatti said. “The curb helps hold the paving in place. Without curbs, the edge of the road gets pushed out, and it doesn’t stay. So, the only thing you can do is just resurface it.”
Gatti said by moving the money from a specific project into the resurfacing program he is actually granted more leeway, as the resurfacing program is not site specific. He said his primary concern at this stage is to not lose the funding so at the very least they can repave the road. He said he would do a walk-through with residents who live along the road to see what other options would be a possibility, such as Jersey barriers. Gatti said it could take months to hear back from FHWA.
Also in attendance was William Detweiler, the president of the CHCA, who urged the Streets Department to communicate better with the community.
“Reach out to us if you think there’s something coming down the pike,” he said. “Come talk to us – we want to help you. We don’t want to cause your life to be miserable, we don’t want to make you mad, and we don’t want you to go away and take away your projects. We want to talk about the bigger issue of better communication.”