Why Washington Avenue will remain 5 lanes west of Broad, ‘disappointing’ city officials

At one point, the South Philly roadway was going to be reduced to three lanes. Now half of it will remain virtually unchanged.

A cyclist navigates around a delivery truck blocking a lane on Washington Avenue in early June

A cyclist navigates around a delivery truck blocking a lane on Washington Avenue in early June

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
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After nearly a decade of planning, a makeover of Washington Avenue will start next month with repaving. And for half the corridor, repaving is where it will end. At least for now.

City officials from the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability on Friday announced the timeline for next steps, and explained additional projects meant to improve traffic flow, bicycle safety and pedestrian safety — but only for the section east of Broad Street.

The presentation noted city officials were “disappointed” with this outcome.

Changes outlined by OTIS in March were originally meant to improve the entire stretch of road, which crosses South Philadelphia just below Center City. It’s currently five lanes wide, and is known to be one of the city’s least safe corridors for pedestrians.

The section of Washington from Grays Ferry to 8th Street is part of the city’s High Injury Network, the 12% of city streets where 80% of all traffic deaths and serious injuries occur. Of those 19 blocks, more than half are left out of the update announced this week.

“Some people who cross Washington Avenue aren’t going to have the same level of comfort west of Broad Street that they have east of Broad Street,” said Mike Carroll, Philadelphia’s deputy managing director for transportation.

The reason: Washington Avenue is split across two councilmanic districts, and only one of those two council members signed onto a plan the city proposed in March.

District 1 Councilmember Mark Squilla introduced legislation (formulated by city officials) that would allow for a “mix-lane layout” with enhanced parking and loading areas and other traffic calming features. District 2 Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson declined to push similar legislation forward.

The proposal was the product of the “largest engagement process that’s ever been done for a streets improvement project,” Carroll said.

Here’s how that prolonged process led to this point.

Early planning

The idea to revamp Washington Avenue dates back to 2013. It started with two years of public meetings, followed by a slew of studies — OTIS examined parking and loading east of Broad in 2016, then west of Broad in 2019, and completed traffic analyses in 2019 and 2020.

All those studies boiled down to three options for a new Washington Avenue layout: four lanes, three lanes, or a mixed-lane option where road width varied along the corridor.

From there, the city went to residents for their opinion.

COVID-19 hit as the survey process was underway. Without in-person meetings, OTIS used online surveys, paper mail and phone calls to get as much input as possible.

The results: a majority of the 5,600 surveyed wanted the three-lane option, the biggest change to the existing layout.

Based on that input, the city released a “final design decision” in September 2020, which was meant to be executed the next year.

Not so final design

By summer 2021, the improvement project had not begun, and OTIS said it would have to delay Washington Avenue for a year. Carroll said at the time that the pandemic was to blame, because so many other high-priority projects had been pushed off the year prior.

But in February this year, OTIS went back to the drawing board, announcing that the so-called “final” design decision had been scrapped.

That announcement came after in-person meetings with residents and registered community organizations in Grays Ferry and Point Breeze, some of whom said they didn’t know about or feel heard by the earlier surveys, and worried that the planned design would speed up gentrification in the area. There was also another round of surveying, this time on paper.

“We felt like there were some folks who were underrepresented, at least as far as we could tell, in the survey,” Carroll told WHYY’s Plan Philly at the time.

“They were very vocal about the fact that they did not take part in the online survey,” Carrol said. “They tended to be people who were located in neighborhoods where there’s a certain amount of gentrification which is looming over them — so folks who are longer-term residents, more African Americans, more older residents.”

In March of this year, OTIS released a new plan: a hybrid street design that would allow for reducing traffic to three lanes in some areas and maintaining up to five lanes in other parts.

Why it changed again

The results of the second survey process, as described by OTIS, made two things clear: the 2020 plan to whittle Washington down to three lanes was no longer on the table. But keeping it five lanes was also supposedly not on the table.

This revised plan would still require City Council to pass legislation allowing changes to parking and loading regulations to encourage vehicles to come and go more quickly.

Squilla introduced that legislation in May, but only for the areas in his own district — according to a longstanding Philadelphia tradition known as councilmanic prerogative, district councilmembers don’t try to legislate outside their own borders.

Johnson refused to do the same, saying he wanted to keep Washington five lanes wide in his district. He said he still supported implementing safety features like speed cushions, curb cuts, better lighting and traffic signals. But during Friday’s announcement, OTIS director Carroll noted those kinds of features simply don’t make sense on a five-lane throughway, and they don’t exist on any other similar roads in the city.

“It’s not a simple matter of throwing down speed cushions,” Carroll said.

So for now, he said, the only changes to Washington west of Broad will be the repaving. Other measures will have to be considered later.

That includes red light cameras, which are a consideration for the entirety of Washington Avenue, but require further study.

“We certainly don’t want to have to say, ‘I told you so,’ but recognize that we have to respond to the traffic that takes place on the street, we’ll have to see,” Carroll said. “I take no satisfaction in having to return to this and take a second look at it.”