Coronavirus kills Philly street sweeping expansion

Mayor Kenney has canceled a long-awaited street sweeping program that would have reinstated regular cleaning in neighborhoods. Litter is one of city residents’ top complaints.

A street sweeper works along Kensington Avenue

A street sweeper works along Kensington Avenue in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Street sweeping in Philadelphia is over before it began.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has slashed the long-awaited expansion of a pilot program as part of dramatic budget cuts proposed for the city’s revised 2021 budget.

Philadelphia is the only big city in the country to lack a comprehensive street sweeping program. But Marisa Waxman, Kenney’s budget director, said Thursday that the projected $10 to $11 million needed to finance the expanded program was not in the cards.

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“As we looked across the budget with a $649 million gap, we had to prioritize what we still are able to do and we focused on keeping Philadelphians safe, healthy and educated,” Waxman said.

A WHYY report revealed early last year that the Philadelphia Parking Authority had raked in millions off sanitation-related parking tickets even though city sweeper trucks rarely traversed the handful of streets still scheduled for cleaning.

In the following months, Kenney and City Council each proposed millions in new initiatives to expand litter collection efforts including a $2.3 million pilot program that employed leaf blowers to help sweep up debris.

Earlier this year, the city scrapped the blowers but settled on a plan to expand traditional street sweeping efforts beyond six initial pilot zones, with an ultimate goal of achieving citywide cleaning.

Although the city has already invested in new cleaning crews and equipment, that plan is now on ice for the foreseeable future. While the city said it considered “racial equity” in determining its painful budget revisions, notably five of the city’s six target locations for its sweeper pilot were predominantly neighborhoods of color.

Philadelphia’s trash woes are nothing new, but they have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Personal protective equipment litters the streets and sewer systems, while residents citywide have faced delays with their trash pickup.

Speaking with reporters Thursday, officials expressed remorse about the incoming losses to programs and other city services.

“Everyone in the administration is disappointed with the financial circumstances we find ourselves in,” said Jim Engler, Kenney’s chief of staff.

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