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Holy coincidence: Officials insist Center City repaving has nothing to do with Pope Francis’ visit

If you live, work, bike or drive in Center City, the huge number of streets being repaved this summer has been impossible to miss.

Why are these major improvements happening now? Could it have anything to do with a certain VIP visitor headed to Philadelphia this fall.

‘Previously scheduled work’

But that’s simply not true, says the Philadelphia Streets Department. There is no connection between the repaving and Pope Francis’ September visit for the World Meeting of Families, according to department PR specialist June Cantor — in a city where infrastructure repair can happen at a maddeningly slow pace, the tear-ups and re-paving are a minor miracle.

“This is previously scheduled work and it is not related to the papal visit,” Cantor wrote in an email to Billy Penn. “The only influence that the papal visit has on this work is that we want to have it done well in advance so we are out of the way by September 1.”

Education vs infrastructure

Marc Vetri, who co-owns seven restaurants in Philadelphia and is consistently outspoken about urban policies, is skeptical of that claim.

“Never in my life have I seen work on roads like this. To say it’s not related is ridiculous,” he told Billy Penn. “When they really need something done…they seem to locate the money.”

Vetri is a big advocate of education funding; his restaurants all donate a portion of their proceeds to the Vetri Foundation for Children, which runs a program called “Eatiquette” that helps kids appreciate healthy eating via restaurant-style school lunches. So, as he asserted recently on Twitter, he thinks the money being used for repaving would be better put toward education.

Underfunded all around

Discussing what to do with $100 million is moot in this case, anyway.

Just $20.4 million for paving projects was included in Mayor Michael Nutter’s budget for fiscal year 2016 [PDF], which went into effect at the beginning of July. That’s up from $16 million the year before, and will allow approximately 25 percent more streets to be resurfaced: around 85 miles versus last year’s 66.

These numbers are actually much lower than needed to achieve what’s considered adequate, which is a resurfacing at least once every 15 years. With around 2,525 miles of city-maintained roads, we’d have to figure out how to pay for repaving 168 miles a year to keep up.

One reason it may seem like so much more is being done now than in recent memory is repaving all but came to a halt between FY2010-2014, building up a backlog of around 900 miles in need.

The cause: Money usually allocated to resurfacing was diverted to the federally-mandated installation of ADA curb cuts — those ramps that make it possible for wheelchairs (and strollers) to roll easily onto sidewalks after crossing the street. Recently, the Streets Department made the decision to pull back on that project, and only focus on intersections disabled community leaders see as most important, so that repaving could be ramped up again.

PennDOT’s summer season

This image, posted on Reddit's r/philadelphia forum, sparked 102 comments

This image, posted on Reddit's r/philadelphia forum, sparked 102 comments

All that doesn’t stop people from jumping to conclusions.

But the fact is that many major Center City thoroughfares — including Broad Street and Market Street — are actually maintained by PennDOT, a state agency whose funding does not come out of Philadelphia’s budget.

PennDOT resurfacing projects in the region happen throughout the year — 14 miles in Northeast Philly were repaved in March, 11 miles were resurfaced in Montgomery County in May and 24 miles were done in Bucks County this June. But mid-summer is generally the common season for Center City projects, because the city is somewhat emptier, thanks to colleges and universities being closed and downtown workers taking off for vacation.

The current activity is part of a $13.4 million, 22-mile undertaking slated to wrap up in October.

(For the curious, the reason there’s often a delay between milling off old pavement and laying the new is to give utility companies time to inspect and adjust manholes, per this Plan Philly streetsplainer.)

Rendell weighs in

Though he currently has nothing to do with either state or city budgets, Ed Rendell is well-versed in their minutiae and motivations. He offered a measured response to the issue.

In a recent sit-down interview with Billy Penn, the former Pennsylvania governor and Philadelphia mayor was asked his opinion on whether the current paving bonanza was instigated because of Pope Francis.

“Probably, to some degree,” he answered, referring to some of the major Center City resurfacing.

“But some of the repaving is in the neighborhoods — neighborhoods the pope will never see, so you can’t really ascribe it all to that.”

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