Year-end update on Streets Dept. capital projects

Every few months, PlanPhilly checks in on some ongoing transportation projects. As 2014 gives way to 2015, we asked Darrin Gatti, Chief Engineer at the Philadelphia Streets Department, to get us up to speed on the projects that’ll help speed you along your bicycle and automobile journeys in Philly. Streets has been busy lately, bidding out about $48 million in construction projects in 2013, and another $65 million in 2014, according to Gatti. Only a few years ago, $20 million was the norm. The increase, says Gatti, comes from the Streets Department’s recent success in winning federal and state grants. Still “we’re still kinda behind the eight ball,” says Gatti, “so every year we’re going to have to do what we can to get as much help as possible from the state and federal government. And hope for good weather.”

Broad Street – Avenue of the Arts North:  This $8.7 million project to install around 50 light towers on Broad Street’s median from Spring Garden to Temple’s campus is moving along according to schedule, despite having “a truck hit one of the foundations,” Gatti reported with a laugh. Besides that mishap, things have been going smoothly and the project should finish in the fall of 2015.

Citywide Street Resurfacing: A federally-funded $12 million resurfacing project in Center City finished up this fall, but – like Sixers rebuilding or NPR pledge drives – resurfacing is, truly, a neverending project. In 2015, another $13.8 million federally funded project will resurface streets all over the city. Affected neighborhoods will be notified via press releases from Streets Department and notices to the appropriate city council representatives and registered community organizations. 

In addition next year’s federal resurfacing projects, there are also plans to replace 68 miles of road using city funds. Again, these jobs will be spread across the city and Streets will notify the affected neighborhoods in advance.

Do note, however, that many streets in Philadelphia aren’t under the purview of the Philadelphia Streets Department – roadways left in rough shape after last winter like Spring Garden Street and Broad Street are actually PennDOT’s responsibility. According to Eugene Blaum, a spokesman for PennDOT, “the Department is planning a future resurfacing of South Broad Street between City Hall and Washington Avenue but there is no definitive timeframe [yet].”

Delaware Avenue Extension: This project, started in the spring, is running a little late due to difficulties with soil conditions, but is still set to finish up late in 2015 (it was originally scheduled to complete this past fall). This  $11 million project is extending Delaware Avenue from Lewis Street to Orthodox Street.  As this project finishes up, Streets will advertise the next phase of the project, which will further lengthen the road from Orthodox to Buckius Street in Bridesburg. Eventually, Streets wants to extend N. Delaware past Bridge Street. This extension is designed to help area traffic by providing a truck route alternative to Richmond Street.

Willow Grove Ave Bridge: Back in 2013, the Streets Deptartment needed to make some emergency repairs to this bridge near SEPTA’s St. Martin Station. Originally slated to cost about $4 million and to take until early 2016, the construction is now expected to cost just $3.2 million (with the funds coming mainly from the federal government) and to finish in December 2015. Starting January 5th, the bridge will be completely closed until construction ends, but the station and its parking lot will remain open during the rebuild.

41st Street Bridge: As middle children all over can attest, not being the first or final often means your the last to garner attention. So it is with the 41st Street Bridge, which follows its siblings, the 40th and 42nd Street Bridges, in major reconstruction work. The trio all traverse over Amtrak lines in West Philadelphia, and 41st Street had to wait until work on 40th Street was finished, so the utilities running along 41st Street Bridge could be moved to 40th. 

Contract bids for this project will open in January. The work you see there now is Amtrak moving equipment and wires before structural work on the bridge itself starts in the early spring. Construction should last about two years.

Manayunk Trail Bridge: Construction just started in November on the Manayunk Trail Bridge, which is transforming the old rail bridge owned by SEPTA into a bicycle and pedestrian trail connecting Manayunk and Lower Merion. “So far, [construction] is running smoothly, which is the way we like it,” said Gatti. “We don’t like problems, don’t need any drama.” No matter what, though, there will be at least one thing dramatic about this bridge spanning high above the Schuylkill: its views.

Baxter Trail: Construction started this fall on this approximately $4 million trail project connecting Pennypack Park to Linden Avenue and the Delaware River. Streets Department is overseeing trail projects like this because of their construction expertise, even though they aren’t traditional street undertakings, said Chief Engineer Gatti. Pegged to finish this coming fall, the Baxter Trail will feature a bridge over Pennypack Creek.

Woodland Avenue and Bustleton Avenue Signal Upgrades: These are a trio (technically, Bustleton Avenue North and Bustleton Avenue South are separate projects) of signal upgrade projects funded by federal TIGER grants. By updating the traffic signals, Streets will be able to coordinate traffic light timing from a central location and thereby improve traffic flow. Ultimately, Philly will enjoy many more “Green Bands” like those on Spruce and Pine, where drivers and cyclists that go 20 mph will avoid hitting red lights. Woodland Avenue is scheduled to be completed September 2015, and Bustleton Avenue should finish a bit earlier; construction itself will wrap up in the summer, but testing will continue for a few months. These projects were delayed by the rough winter last year. TIGER grants were one-time stimulus funds from the federal government for projects scheduled to be completed by the end of 2015.

Relatedly, Streets Department recently started advertising for its new Traffic Operations Center. Philadelphia will be joining most other major metropolises, which already have a centralized location with access to the upgrade signals and traffic cameras throughout their cities. As Streets Department Chief Engineer Darrin Gatti put it, this will be the kind of operations center “you see in the movies, [where] they hack in and change the lights from red to green.” Other than offering would-be Die Hard villains the alluring prospect of changing all of Independence Mall’s lights red during a daring Fourth of July heist at the Philadelphia Mint, the Operations Center will help Streets’ traffic engineers adjust the signals to improve traffic flow. Currently, Streets can adjust signal timing, but they have to do so manually at most spots – actually heading to the signal in question, assessing the situation in person and then making a change. “We’ll be able to adjust timings from a central location,” said Gatti. “[This] makes it much more efficient, and we’ll be more able to be responsive to traffic incidents” like construction, special events and accidents. Right now, the upgraded signals are controlled at preexisting Streets Department offices. Improvements from the upgrade signals and centralized operations center will be so steady and gradual over the next few years as to all but assure that most of us will never actually notice them, but it should net the city large benefits in the aggregate.

Torresdale Avenue Gateway: This $1.5 million streetscape project was delayed a bit. Originally scheduled for completion this fall, it’ll now finish up this coming spring.

Roosevelt Avenue Pedestrian Crossing: Streets finished this project in August, which built a signalized crosswalk for pedestrians on this extremely busy – and dangerous – roadway. Pedestrians can now push a button to stop traffic and – hopefully – cross safely. 

Lincoln Drive: Streets Department is now planning the repavement of this windy road along the Wissahickon. In addition to repaving, Streets will also improve drainage, replace parts of the median barrier and upgrade signals. According to Gatti, heavy rains can close sections of Lincoln Drive because “water just comes cascading off the hillsides… its like driving through a waterfall.” The job is expected to cost about $7.5 million with around 80 percent of the funds coming from Federal Highway Administration funds. This project will be particularly challenging, says Gatti, because “you can’t close Lincoln Drive,” other than the possibility of a few nighttime closures. Regular Lincoln Drive commuters should keep their eyes open for lane closures as this project gets underway late next year. 

Historic Streets: As any tourist knows, Philadelphia features a handful of streets with historic surfaces: Belgian block, granite, brick and even wood. The Streets Department works hand in hand with the Historical Commission to maintain these historic and eye-catching byways. Streets just completed a study evaluating the historic streets, ranking them on a pure engineering basis of structural condition. They then handed that list over to the Historical Commission to amend the prioritization based off of historical significance, “to give us a real good priority of where we should work first,” said Gatti.

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