On the most patched block of one of the most cracked, crumbling streets in Philadelphia, everyone has a pothole story.
The transmission of Ray Peele’s Chevrolet Cavalier failed twice after hitting a pothole near his home on Ogontz Avenue. Repairs cost him $100 both times.
“This road is perfect for a drunk driver,” said Peele, 63. “A cop can’t pull you over for weaving.”
Gina Hyde, 56, blew out two tires on her Mercedes and had to replace them both. “The roads are horrible,” she said. “They do some repairs, and by the time you get to the wintertime, it’s just the same.”
Dodging potholes and cracks on Ogontz Avenue has become a test of agility and reflexes, said Tez Bowens, 41, who regularly bikes there.
“It’s almost like driving in a video game,” he said. “It’s like Paperboy.”
All of them spoke on the block of Ogontz between Stenton and Medary Avenues, where the city has repaired potholes more than 400 times in six years. The work is obvious. Amid the splitting asphalt are rectangles of pavement that don’t match the rest of the street and dark seams of tar.
Along the nearly 3½-mile avenue, the Streets Department has repaired potholes 4,866 times from 2013 to 2018, more than any other road in the city. The thruway is Philadelphia’s fifth worst rated, according to a recent Controller’s Office analysis.
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Ogontz has something in common with many of the other most pothole-riddled roads in the city. Its repaving budget is largely covered by a federal grant program designed to maintain the quality of heavily traveled urban roads. The funding source, the Surface Transportation Block Grant program, covers 80 percent of the repaving costs on about 306 miles of streets, roughly 10 percent of Philadelphia’s road miles. The city pays the remaining 20 percent.
The grant money can’t be used for patching or other routine maintenance, officials said. But to combat potholes, repaving is more effective than repairs. Patching is a temporary solution on road surfaces that have grown too old to hold together properly, city officials said.
For years Philadelphia has struggled to keep up with street maintenance. The ideal paving rate is about 131 miles a year. In 2019, the city anticipates repaving almost 100 miles. The federal program has brought $86 million to the city for infrastructure work since 2001, with $74.5 million more expected by 2022, according to city data.
"These roads are fortunate because they are eligible for federal money,” said Elizabeth Schoonmaker, who manages transportation programs for the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.
Yet eight of the 10 worst-rated streets — those with 500 or more pothole repairs from 2013 to 2018 — receive federal money for repaving, according to the Controller’s Office data. Officials said an onerous application process required to receive the funding and delays that slowed applications in years past have led to those streets falling behind in their repaving schedules and becoming some of the most cratered thruways in Philadelphia.
A busy road should be repaved every seven to 10 years, said Richard Montanez, the Streets Department’s deputy commissioner of transportation. Ogontz Avenue, scheduled for repaving this fall, hasn’t gotten a face-lift in 12 years, he said. Of the city’s eight worst streets, only three have had any portion repaved since 2013, and none has been completely repaved, according Controller’s Office data.
Many of the federally supported roads are in Center City; others are neighborhood thoroughfares. Less than a quarter of them, though, have been repaved in the last six years. And citywide, they require a disproportionate amount of pothole repair.
The city must meet both state and federal regulations to receive the grants. The relevant PennDot regulations, alone, are more than 400 pages long. And federal law requires environmental impact reviews and evaluations of any historic features that could be affected by paving. The grants can’t be used to reimburse the city if it uses its own crews for repaving, so the city must go through a federally regulated bidding process to hire contractors.
As a result, the process of planning for paving to getting new asphalt on a road can take up to five years.
“It’s not as simple a paving job as the city does,” Montanez said. “We also have to do all the checks and balances for the feds.”
The roads currently supported by the grants have relied on them for about 19 years, officials said, and due to both the Great Recession and instability in state transportation funding until 2012, repaving citywide suffered. Due to underfunding and staffing strains, the city experienced delays in filling out the federal grant paperwork. Because the process of receiving the money can take so long, delays from years ago are still slowing the repaving process today, city officials said.
“The forms change,” Montanez said. “Some of the requirements change for the feds. And every administration puts different checks and balances there.”
Federal authorities acknowledged that the application process can be lengthy.
“Are we trying to find ways to speed the process up? Of course," said Doug Hecox, a spokesperson for the Federal Highway Administration. “A lot of it is environmental review, a lot of it is historic preservation, and Philly’s got a lot of that.”
In the works are three sets of repaving packages to be funded with the federal grants, which will help catch up on the backlog through 2020, part of a $200 million, six-year repaving initiative announced in May. The first is $17.8 million toward Ogontz Avenue. Swanson Street — rated worst in the city by the controller —Washington Avenue, St. Martins Lane, and Chestnut Hill Avenue are also expected to be repaved this year or next, according to Philadelphia’s list of federally funded road projects from 2019 to 2022.
But others high on the repair list — 63rd Street, Chelten Avenue, and Krewstown Road — are not scheduled for repaving.
“Our goal is to get them in that 7- to 10-year cycle,” Montanez said. “We’re trying to do better planning, better work on it.”
With a new road surface still to come, drivers and cyclists on Ogontz Avenue will have to keep their eyes peeled and a steely hand on the steering.