It’s that time of year when trees are budding, daffodils are popping up, and Philadelphia’s streets are once again turning into a rutted, rubble-strewn obstacle course. Amid the widening potholes, bumpy asphalt moguls, archaeological-scaled utility excavations, and proliferating construction barriers, steering a car or bicycle through the city requires steel nerves and a vigilant eye.
If the streets seem more tattered than usual, it isn’t all in your head. Even city officials concede that years of deferred maintenance, coupled with a frenzied construction boom, have left some streets looking like a war zone.
How bad is it? At 22nd and Pine, a bathtub-size pothole recently appeared in the middle of the intersection. City workers patched it up, but no sooner did they finish laying down a square of fresh asphalt than another hole opened up next to it, sucking a traffic cone down into the void. Now, a second cone alerts travelers to the gradually sinking street.
If you travel by bicycle, you are probably sensitive to the challenging road conditions. On Pine and Spruce Streets, where the city’s first buffered bike lanes were installed in 2009, the white markings that separate cars and bikes are so eroded those celebrated lanes effectively no longer exist on some blocks. Anarchy reigns, increasing the danger for pedestrians and cyclists alike.
After years of ignoring the deteriorating conditions, the city finally seems ready to invest in its crumbling streets. Included in the budget Mayor Kenney presented last week is a line item that would significantly increase the Streets Department maintenance budget. Assuming City Council approves the budget this spring, the administration will devote $174 million over the next five years to repave roads and refresh traffic markings.
It may sound like a big number given all the city’s pressing needs, but there is a lot of catching up to do.
Over the last decade, Philadelphia drastically cut its budget for road maintenance, spending a modest $86 million over the last five years. The Streets Department needs to repave 131 miles of the city’s 2,500-mile road network every year just to keep up with normal wear and tear. But the underfunded department hasn’t been able to meet that goal since 2002. The low point was in 2014, when the department received only enough money to repave 34 miles of streets. Though the city bumped that figure up to 63 miles in 2016, an enormous backlog remains.
Philadelphia’s Paving Backlog
It’s a little ironic that the paving budget was scaled back in the mid-2000s just as the city began enjoying one of the biggest building booms in its history. Even as the new high-rise towers and rowhouses pump up the city’s economy, the construction is wreaking havoc on the streets, Mike Carroll, the deputy mayor for transportation, told me.
Those new homes need to be tied into the utility grids, which means developers must dig up the streets to install new hook-ups. At the same, the utility companies -- from Comcast to PGW to the Water Department -- have been beefing up the underground grid of pipes and cables to meet the demand of a growing population. That explains why so many streets are veined with trenches.
Although the work should lead to improved service, the utilities have left behind a chaotic mess of patches and potholes. The situation is especially bad in Center City because all utilities, even communications cables, are buried below the street.
When cities talk about the nation’s infrastructure crisis, basic street paving isn’t usually what comes to mind. But keeping streets in good condition has become a huge cost burden for cities. Some, such as Omaha, Neb., and Youngstown, Ohio, have been striking streets from their maps to reduce the paving demand.
Philadelphia, fortunately, hasn’t gone that route. But it has struggled. After the federal government began requiring accessibility ramps at the corner of every block in 2009, the city redirected nearly two-thirds of its paving budget to comply with the directive, according to David Perri, who previously ran the Streets Department. That left only a few million dollars a year for actual paving.
“It’s been a perfect storm,” said Sarah Clark Stuart, who runs the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. It was the coalition that made the lack of repaving an issue. In a 2014 report, Safer Streets, it pointed out that Philadelphia was spending less than 1 percent of its total budget on street repairs, compared with Baltimore’s 5.5 percent and Chicago’s 1.7 percent, making the streets less safe for all users.
The goal now, Carroll said, is to gradually ramp up spending. Starting in the fiscal year that begins this summer, the city will repave 75 miles of streets. It aims to get back to 130 miles a year by 2023.
Returning the city streets to a state of good repair is crucial if the Kenney administration hopes to fulfill its other goals. This week, it rolled out its Vision Zero master plan, which aims to eliminate traffic fatalities, especially among pedestrians. The city also has promised to expand the number of protected bike lanes around the city to encourage cycling.
But how can you talk about growing the network when pieces of the network are vanishing? It is still unclear which streets will benefit from the increased funding. To be fair to all neighborhoods, Carroll said, the city likes to spread the repaving work around. The same goes for refreshing traffic and bike-lane markings. Even so, Stuart argues that the lanes on Pine, Spruce, 10th, and 13th Streets should be a top priority because they are so heavily used by cyclists.
Keeping streets in good condition is one of the most basic services a city can provide its residents. As Philadelphia renews its buildings, it needs to do the same for its infrastructure. Streets seem like a good place to start.