Councilman hopes to empower city to repair roads and bridges it doesn’t own

Councilman David Oh introduced a bill in City Council on Thursday that would empower the Streets Department to repair and maintain roads, bridges, and other byways outside its traditional jurisdiction.

The bill, which is aimed at out-of-shape railroad bridges and other thoroughfares controlled by federal or state agencies or private owners, would require a change to the city charter. It would give the Streets Dept. the power and duty to repair and maintain not only city streets, which are already included in the charter, but also “Streets that pose peril to persons or property … not owned, controlled or operated by the city.”

The legislation would allow the Department to force the owners of those roads and bridges to repair them by levying fines or taking “other legal action.” It would also empower the Department to complete the repairs itself and recover the expenses by way of liens.

Councilman Oh said on Thursday that the bill is meant to improve public safety around roads and bridges that nobody wants to claim responsibility for.

“When nobody takes responsibility for a bridge in particular and people continue to drive over it, there’s nobody inspecting it, and you see potholes, and then underneath the bridge you’re not sure what’s going on there,” Oh said. “And people have complained, but nobody’s taken responsibility. Nobody inspects it. I think it’s a real hazard.”

“So what I’m saying,” he continued, “is I’d like to do a charter change, which I’m doing, that obliges and empowers our Streets Department to find out who owns it, charge them for the repair, go to court, get them to repair it, or, if necessary—you know, I think we cannot just say ‘Nobody’s responsible’ when there’s really this type of hazard involved, like life and death—we should fix it, and then we should send a bill somewhere.”

The change would allow the city to react to complaints about unsafe infrastructure even when the infrastructure isn’t city-owned. Presumably, it would not require the Streets Dept. to go out and inspect all non-city-owned roads and bridges in Philadelphia.

PlanPhilly asked whether there was precedent for giving a municipality the ability to fine a state or federal agency.

“I don’t know,” Oh said. “But I think there’s many times when a state may sue the federal government or a city may sue the state for a failure to fulfill their responsibilities and things like that.”

Oh said he had not yet talked to officials at the Streets Department, PennDOT, or the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities. But he said the bill would be a good way to start the conversation.

“What I’d like to simply do is set up some way that we can address, and hopefully not spend our tax dollars, which are very limited at this point in time, on fixing somebody else’s property,” Oh said.

PlanPhilly has requested comment from the Department of Streets.

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