An asphalt tangle in South Philly shows how pricey safe streets can be

There’s a messy slab of street in South Philadelphia that embodies confusing, unsafe road design.

“You risk your life crossing the street around here,” said Dana Douglas, a cashier at the Penrose Diner. “The cars come from all different directions.”

Outside the landmark diner, traffic patterns at the convergence of Moyamensing Avenue, Penrose Avenue, 20th Street, and Packer Avenue can be baffling. The tangle of roads isn’t helped by confusing traffic signals and the lack of  “walk” signals indicating when a pedestrian can cross.

“The intersection is effectively a barrier that discourages pedestrian activity, and with schools, playgrounds, churches, stores, and other businesses within a two-block distance of the intersection, it’s just not helpful for a community,” said Gustave Scheerbaum, the Philadelphia Streets Department’s strategic initiatives director.

A review of state crash data showed six crashes in or near that intersection from 2011 to 2016. None resulted in deaths or serious injuries.

Philadelphia received $5.7 million this week in state grants that will be devoted to safe streets projects. Of that, $1.5 million is going to rebuild the South Philadelphia intersection. The cost of that project, though, is an example of how difficult — and expensive — it will be to achieve significant change on city streets.

“The funding is a significant limitation,” said Christopher Puchalsky, the director of policy and strategic initiatives for the city’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems.

Philadelphia is in the midst of a multiyear initiative to make its streets safer. About 100 people die each year in traffic-related incidents, and Mayor Kenney supports a policy based on Vision Zero, which emphasizes the importance of re-engineering streets to slow vehicles and reduce deaths. The city Streets Department has $1 million devoted to Vision Zero initiatives out of its $23 million capital budget — an amount called insufficient just this week in a report from the Center City District.

While traffic experts consider re-engineering streets to be highly effective in slowing vehicle traffic, it’s also very expensive. The city this week received other state grants totaling $4.2 million, and much of that is going to be devoted to finding traffic safety solutions with a lower price tag.

Something as seemingly simple as updating traffic signals at single standard intersection can cost between $200,000 and $300,000, city officials said. A $500,000 state grant also announced this week for five intersections on Roosevelt Boulevard will cover sidewalk, signs, pavement markings, and lighting, among other minor safety improvements.

Low-cost fixes that could make streets safer could include speed cushions on the roads, or curb bump-outs that make it easier for pedestrians to see traffic. Also, $1 million will be spent to connect traffic lights to a central control system to allow city engineers to adjust the timing without having to send workers to intersections.

The people at the Penrose Diner, who spend each day near wide windows facing the tangled intersection, explained why it’s a pedestrian’s nightmare. Because of the way the crosswalks are designed, people have to play a sort of hopscotch, moving from one sidewalk island to another to get across the intersection. And the timing of green, yellow, and red lights is also an issue.

“The light lasts a couple seconds, and that’s why everyone drives so fast through there,” said Amanda Lutek, a diner hostess.

The city seeks to simplify traffic flow at the South Philadelphia intersection. How to do that is still in the planning, but a solution could involve creating islands to reduce the amount of driveable area and redesigning the way the streets intersect. There will likely also be changes to the sidewalks, curbs, traffic signals, lighting, and storm water drainage.

“That’s going to be a challenge,” neighborhood resident Brent Miller said as he waited for breakfast.

City planners agreed. The driveable area in the intersection covers 2½ acres and includes eight corners. A typical intersection has four corners and would cost between $350,000 and $400,000 to design and construct safety improvements. Redesigning the South Philadelphia intersection is expected to start in the fall and take a year, with construction after that. Adding to the project timeline is the need for community input on the proposed design. The terms of the grant require the project to be finished in three years.

“It has to improve,” Douglas said. “It has to be an improvement.”

This story has been updated to correct the way a $500,000 grant will be used on Roosevelt Boulevard.

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