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Philly roads: Car commuters will lose three days of their lives to traffic every year

Let’s talk about Philly roads — warts (well, potholes) and all.

In Philadelphia, about two-thirds of all households have access to at least one car and about 562,000 vehicles are owned or rented, according to Census data. So we’re talking about more than half a million vehicles. And those cars pound Philadelphia’s roads and highways on a daily basis, to the tune of 14 million average daily miles.

What does it mean? Congestion! Potholes! Ditches! They cost us time and money and ruin our cars. Here’s a look at Philadelphia’s road problems and what the city, state and country are trying to do to keep them in good condition.

The problem

Complaining about traffic, potholes and other roadway problems in Philadelphia is a tradition as old as the automobile. But it’s not just a lingering, misplaced complaint. Many times, traffic in Philadelphia really does suck, and its streets are littered with potholes.

The average Philadelphian who commutes by car spends an extra 18 minutes in traffic daily (nine minutes each way), according to research from the navigation company TomTom. Over a year that adds up to 70 hours — so you’re losing almost three days of your life every year sitting behind that wreck on the Schuylkill. TRIP, another group that studies traffic and infrastructure (albeit a group with an interest in road construction), estimated the annual cost to a Philadelphia driver because of this lost time and wasted gas could reach $2,300.

Philadelphia’s roads are worse than the highways, too, with a congestion level of 29 percent on roads and 16 percent on the highways, according to TomTom. The congestion level measures the increase in travel time on congested roads compared to free-flowing traffic. So if a trip would normally take 30 minutes but had a congestion rate of 29 percent, the trip would take about an extra eight minutes.

Still, the highways aren’t great. We call it the “Sure Kill Expressway” for a reason. In 2011, The Daily Beast rated the stretch of the Schuylkill from Manayunk to Grays Ferry as the 18th-worst area for traffic in the nation. TRIP deemed these stretches of Philadelphia highways as the worst for traffic in 2013:

  1. I-676 from I-95 to I-76
  2. PA 611 from the Pennsylvania Turnpike to I-95
  3. US 422 from US 202 to north of Egypt Road
  4. I-76 from I-676 to Belmont Avenue
  5. I-95 from the Betsy Ross Bridge to Spring Garden

And without changes, congestion could easily get worse, given Philadelphia and the region’s growing population.

“Look at I-76, or Vine Street expressway or any rail car,” Therese McMillan, acting administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, said at a Dilworth Park rally earlier this month. “Can we squeeze in 25 percent more people (PA’s population is supposed to increase 20 percent from 1999 to 2025)? We must expand services to meet the needs of an expanding nation.”

McMillan said Pennsylvania spends $3 billion annually on rehabbing bad roads. Philadelphia certainly knows about those. In months like March and April, the Streets Department will fill around 20,000 potholes. Even in the slower summer months, it fills about 1,200. This week NBC 10 featured a story on how Philadelphia’s ramped-up development is causing more havoc in terms of ditches and potholes and reported that the city’s roads currently have 1,700 open ditches.

The Streets Department lately has also been repaving roads at a glacial pace. Last year, it repaved just 30 miles of roads and 135 over the last three years. Patrick Kerkstra at Philly Mag noted that if the Streets Department met its goal of repaving each Philadelphia street once every 15 years then it should be repaving a total of 130 miles of streets per year.

It could be a lot worse, though. According to TRIP, Philadelphia does not rank among the top 20 worst cities for damaged roads, and its congestion rate places it 20th in the United States, well behind New York and Washington DC.

What the city is doing

Roads aren’t just an issue for the city government to worry about. The Streets Department plans and maintains city roads, and Philadelphia has about 2,180 miles of them (The Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities coordinates the Streets Department with other city and private agencies). PennDOT is in charge of state roads and highways, and there are about 360 miles of state highways in Philly. This map shows those highways and the roads (in pink) PennDOT services.

The good news is Pennsylvania, for the most part, is trying to improve our roads. In 2013, the state passed House Bill 1060, injecting more than $2 billion into state infrastructure. In 2014, that bill led to the paving of 1,600 miles of roads. Philadelphia alone received millions of dollars for work on resurfacing many areas on the Schuylkill and rehabbing a bridge on Spring Garden Street above the Schuylkill River among other projects. As part of a program called Revive 95, PennDOT is working to widen an eight-mile stretch of I-95 between 676 and Cottman Avenue. There’s more: Leslie Richards, PennDOT’s acting secretary, said House Bill 1060 led to the creation of 50,000 jobs.

In Philadelphia, the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities plans to use to money from red-light camera tickets to design and build roundabouts, which studies show reduce congestion and contribute to safer streets. PennDOT also has plans for building roundabouts across the state.

Local leaders want more. At the Stand Up 4 Transportation rally earlier this month, transit officials, City Council members and congressmen from the state and national level advocated for a federal infrastructure bill to improve Pennsylvania roads, bridges and more. Richards said Pennsylvania’s annual federal allotment of $1.6 billion is only enough to “stay on top of things.”

So that’s the good news. The bad news is that the public pays for these improvements in the short term through mostly regressive taxes. Gas taxes in Pennsylvania are set to rise to as high as to 58 cents per gallon by 2017, up from 50 cents now. That amount would give Pennsylvania the highest taxation rate in the nation, costing you more than $100 more a year than you’re paying now.

Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor who is now the co-chair of Building America’s Future, wants to start charging tolls on I-95 in Pennsylvania, noting neighboring states like Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland have I-95 tolls. At the transportation rally this month, he even tried to lead a chant about adding tolls to I-95 (it didn’t go over so well). Of course, Rendell didn’t say raising tolls was making the public pay more. He said, “Let’s pass revenue.”

New tolls or not, regular Philadelphians are doing their part to improve road infrastructure by being less car-dependent. Philadelphia, compared to the rest of the state, isn’t driving as much. The average daily miles traveled per person in Pennsylvania is 20.8. In Philadelphia, it’s 9.28 miles. Close to 90 percent of households in Pennsylvania own cars, according to Census data, compared to about 67 percent in Philadelphia. About 1.5 percent fewer people are driving solo to work now than were in 2005. For young people the decrease is even greater. The percentage of people age 20-to-24 who drive solo to work now is about 7 percent less than it was in 2005.

By the numbers

270,214,000 — average daily miles traveled in PA

20.8 miles — average daily miles traveled per person in PA

14,407,753 — average daily miles traveled in Philadelphia

9.28 — average daily miles traveled per person in Philadelphia

118,226 — miles of streets in Pennsylvania

2,525 — miles of streets in Philadelphia

$2,301 — high estimate of the annual cost of congestion for an average commuter in lost time and wasted gas

50 cents — Pennsylvania’s current gas taxation rate per gallon

58 cents — Pennsylvania’s likely gas taxation rate per gallon in 2017

History

Streets have defined Philadelphia since its inception in 1682, when William Penn wanted to create a grid network that the Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia described as a way to “promote commerce and enhance public safety.” The network has grown since then, and the surface has changed. You know those brick roads by Independence Hall? Philadelphia had 135 miles of those in 1900. This interactive tool from the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network allows you to see how the city’s network of streets has grown through the last two centuries.

PennDOT has been around since 1970 and succeeded the Department of Highways. According to PennDOT, the largest growth for Pennsylvania highways started in 1931, when the Department of Highways began paving all the highways in Pennsylvania. Many at that time were still dirt roads.

The money

PennDOT’s annual budget in 2013-14 was about $6.3 billion, and the amount covers highways, bridges, public transportation and other modes of transit, though highways account for most of the spending.

In Mayor Michael Nutter’s most recent budget address, he called for $20 million for the Streets Department to pave neighborhood streets. That’s an increase of $4 million compared to the previous year.

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