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With a weekend fatality, Roosevelt Boulevard on pace for most deadly year in recent history

Fatal crashes this year on Roosevelt Boulevard have exceeded the average, data shows.

Shareena Johnson walks across on Roosevelt Boulevard at Bustleton Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Traffic crashes frequently occur on the boulevard. TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Shareena Johnson walks across on Roosevelt Boulevard at Bustleton Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Traffic crashes frequently occur on the boulevard. TIM TAI / Staff PhotographerRead moreTim Tai, --- Tim Tai / Staff Photographer

It's becoming a particularly deadly year on Roosevelt Boulevard.

Eleven people have died this year in as many crashes on the Boulevard as of this week, according to Philadelphia police data. Another died this year on the Roosevelt Expressway, a stretch of the road that is a limited-access highway. That means that, with four months to go before the end of the year, Roosevelt Boulevard has already seen more fatal crashes than it averages in most years.

"I sit out here and watch carnage," said Craig Jefferson, 43, from his steps on Ninth Street within sight of its intersection with the 12-lane Boulevard.

Two have died at that intersection this year, according to Police Department data, the most recent on Aug. 23. The latest death occurred Saturday.

The most dangerous roads throughout Philadelphia tend to be wide, long thoroughfares that carry fast-moving traffic through neighborhoods dense with homes and businesses. Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Boulevard is the biggest and most troublesome of its type. Built in 1914 as a scenic drive from Center City through farmland to communities in the Northeast, a century of population growth and economic development has overwhelmed the road with driveways, tricky intersections, pedestrians, and lots of traffic. People who live near the road describe speeding cars, overturned vehicles, and pileups as common sights.

City officials said that the deaths so far are still within the range of 10 to 16 a year that's typical for the Boulevard, also called Route 1, but that this year does mark an increase over 2017, when there were eight fatal crashes, according to PennDot data.

"We are not able to identify a theme in the increased numbers vs. last year," said Mike Carroll, deputy managing director for transportation and infrastructure in the city, "but we will continue to monitor the situation to see if this increase remains and to identify causes and solutions."

The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia keeps an unofficial tally on all the traffic-related deaths in the city, and the list of this year's victims on Roosevelt Boulevard and Expressway consists of four pedestrians, two motorcyclists, and five people in cars.

"For me, somebody died here. Somebody died here, and I can't believe these people are speeding," said Latanya Byrd, whose niece, Samara Banks, 27, and her three young children were killed by a drag racer while crossing Roosevelt Boulevard in July 2013. "Shouldn't people think something bad happened here?"

Byrd has become an outspoken advocate for change on the Boulevard, and she, city planners, and the Bicycle Coalition say controlling speed is the key to safety. Legislation pending in Harrisburg would legalize speed cameras on the Boulevard between Ninth Street and the border with Bucks County, along with allowing the technology in work zones on the state's highways and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The bill passed both houses of the Pennsylvania legislature, said State Rep. John Taylor, a Philadelphia Republican and the bill's sponsor, and awaits only a concurrence vote in the House before it could be sent to the governor.

"We had hearings on it and there's no reasonable excuse for not allowing municipalities to use it except people don't feel like getting caught," Taylor said.

Taylor says the bill could come up for a vote by late September. If approved, the Philadelphia Parking Authority said the cameras could be up and running in four to six months, followed by a 30-day grace period that would let speeders off with a warning. After that, being photographed traveling 11 mph over the 45-mph speed limit would lead to a $150 violation.

The Boulevard would likely have up to nine speed cameras along nearly 12 miles in a pilot program, advertised by warning signs every two miles.

City officials say speed cameras are only a partial fix, though. Roosevelt Boulevard is the subject of a $5 million study to find solutions through the Route for Change initiative. Those answers will likely debut by 2025, while more comprehensive work won't be complete until 2040.

"We have to really take the time to do the analysis," said Angela Dixon, director of planning for the city's Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems. "There's not a quick answer and implementation to fix the Boulevard."

Resolving traffic problems on the route requires planning for growth. The city estimates traffic, now estimated at 90,000 vehicles a day, will increase by about 4 percent in the next seven years.

Neighbors near Ninth and Roosevelt noticed that the timing of the lights caused problems there. Signals on the route will likely be adjusted to give pedestrians longer red lights and more time to cross. Also needed are redesigned intersections with curbs on opposite sides of the road that align, Dixon said. Aligning curb cuts can cost about $200,000 per intersection, she said.

Shareena Johnson had to drop off an overheating car at a dealership on one side of the Boulevard at the intersection with Bustleton Avenue on Wednesday, and then had to get to a bank on the other side of the road. The trip took several traffic-light cycles as she negotiated crosswalks and median strips.

"Normally I wouldn't walk across the Boulevard if I didn't have to," she said.

Total bus service on the Boulevard increased 5.5 percent over the last year, a SEPTA spokesperson said, in part because express routes began. By 2040, the city would like to see fewer lanes used for traffic, with some that now carry private vehicles devoted to express buses, Dixon said.

"We want to elevate the transit experience and the frequency," Dixon said, "so people have a really good option to driving on the Boulevard."

This story has been corrected to reflect the accurate projected rate of traffic growth on Roosevelt Boulevard.