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Philly scraps three-lane Washington Avenue safety plan, bowing to pressure

The city's Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability said initial community engagement "did not fulfill equity goals of the Administration."

Washington Avenue at Ninth Street in Feb. 2022. It's a congested thoroughfare running from South Philly to Point Breeze and Gray's Ferry. It is on the city's list of most dangerous roadways.
Washington Avenue at Ninth Street in Feb. 2022. It's a congested thoroughfare running from South Philly to Point Breeze and Gray's Ferry. It is on the city's list of most dangerous roadways.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia’s auto-choked Washington Avenue won’t be going on such a strict “road diet” after all.

City transportation officials said Saturday that narrowing several miles of the street to three traffic lanes is now “off the table” — even though planners deemed it the safest option, it had wide support, and the city in 2020 unveiled the plan as its final design.

Urbanists and traffic-safety advocates were enraged, calling the decision a betrayal of thousands of residents who had supported the original plan, as well as the city’s goal of reaching zero traffic deaths by 2030.

Sarah Clark Stuart, president of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, expressed disappointment over both the outcome and the disintegration of a decade-long planning process, which she described as “death by a thousand cuts.”

”It’s a real blow to the public engagement process and to Vision Zero. I think there’s been an enormous loss of trust,” she said.

But the city said in its announcement of the change in plans that it was concerned the public engagement process was not inclusive enough.

“In 2021, the city responded to requests from community and Council for more engagement, particularly in the Point Breeze and Grays Ferry neighborhoods, where low-income and residents of color have been historically underrepresented in city planning decisions,” the city’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability (OTIS) said in its message on the city website, with a link posted to Twitter late Saturday afternoon.

Some business owners along the avenue also said eliminating on-street parking and space for delivery vehicles would hurt them.

Instead, the city said it is weighing two options it described as middle ground between the original plan and the status quo. One would narrow the five lanes of Washington Avenue to four lanes from Fourth Street to Grays Ferry. The second is a mixed plan, in which some sections would be reduced to three lanes and some to four lanes.

Both alternatives would include protected bike lanes and also shorten the length of crosswalks, a key goal of many residents who find it challenging to cross the wide roadway amid zooming traffic, especially with young children.

Under the mixed plan, about 10 blocks of the avenue would be narrowed to three lanes, city officials say.

Albert Littlepage, president of the Point Breeze Community Development Coalition, was among area residents who’d been alarmed by the three-lane proposal. In his view, it was a needlessly drastic measure that, he feared, would create traffic jams, slow down emergency response times, and flush extra cars into the neighborhood’s narrow side streets.

» READ MORE: South Philly’s Washington Avenue gets city approval for major transformation beginning in summer 2021

”We just felt as though there were other safety options we should have tried first, because once you shorten the lanes and extend [widen] the sidewalk, those things are irreversible,” Littlepage said, citing traffic light delays, speed bumps and better marked bike lanes as potential intermediate improvements. He said those proposals were largely ignored by the city.

“The City is fully committed to the safety of those who travel along and across Washington Avenue,” a city spokesperson said in a statement. “In revising the proposal, the city plans to “implement additional traffic calming measures to maximize crash reduction,” while balancing “other considerations” raised by businesses and others that weren’t captured in the online survey.”

The city has scheduled a March 1 public hearing on the way forward for the avenue, but has not yet announced a location or time.

The three-lane changes had been scheduled for last summer as part of a project to repave Washington Avenue between Fourth Street and Gray’s Ferry Avenue. But the work never began. City officials said at the time COVID-19 had delayed the repaving and that they also wanted to consult more “stakeholders.”

Thousands of residents of neighborhoods around Washington Avenue voiced support for the slimmest version of Washington Avenue in an online survey in 2020, and 95% of 790 respondents to a paper survey backed that three-lane option, city officials said. OTIS said it also received 1,866 signatures on a petition opposed to the plan. A petition in favor of the three-lane option by The Action Network, and advocacy group, was signed by about 2,500 city residents, organizers said.

Washington Avenue, last fully repaved nearly two decades ago, has five driving lanes, two parking lanes, and two marked but unprotected bike lanes. Drivers race up to red lights while navigating double-parked cars, delivery trucks and potholes. Cyclists are often forced out of the bike lane and into fast-moving traffic.

The decision was made, city officials said, after four meetings with registered community organizations (RCOs) and residents in Point Breeze and Gray’s Ferry; 16 meetings with businesses in various neighborhoods and several meetings of a “working group” that included safety advocates.

OTIS officials disclosed the new direction first in a meeting Saturday afternoon of the working group.

“This is a loss for everyone who uses Washington Avenue,” said Dena Driscoll, a South Philadelphia resident, cochair of the 5th Square advocacy group and member of the working group. “We can no longer trust this administration to uphold its own stated principles.”

Councilmembers Kenyatta Johnson and Mark Squilla, who represent the two districts spanned by Washington Avenue, “showed a lack of leadership,” she said.

Johnson thanks OTIS for “taking the additional time to hear from all voices in the community,” spokesman Vincent Thompson said in a statement. Johnson “has always wanted to make sure the public comment process on Washington Avenue was diverse and inclusive and reflected the views of all residents.”

Squilla said he understands frustration with the length of the process but added it’s important to wait for OTIS to make a final call before debating it. “All of us want a safer Washington Avenue, he said, adding that either of the alternatives under consideration would represent an improvement.

Stuart, of the bicycle coalition, said that protected bike lanes and shorter crossing distances included in the final plan will be an improvement over the current chaos on the avenue.

But the crossing distance would be 7 feet longer than in the previously proposed three-lane option. To Stuart, that poses unnecessary risk to pedestrians, including children who must cross the street to attend school.

”There will be an improvement. It’s just not going to be the best improvement that was possible, and that’s after almost 10 years of debate and study and evaluation, and a community process,” she said.

This story has been updated with additional details and comment from the city.