Rebuilding Philadelphia, One Bridge at A Time

City pride: What happens when SEPTA and the Streets and Water departments get things done

It’s like the child who cried “wolf.” We’ve heard about it for so long that we’ve become immune. The “it” I reference is infrastructure—bridges, transit assets, public buildings, water systems and parks, you know … stuff. The decaying infrastructure of America, particularly of her cities, correlates to the decaying economy. Our failure to reverse this decline is equally emblematic.

[SIGNUP]The problem is not just money, but money is key. There are environmental issues impeding rebuilding and replacement. NIMBY often works its poisonous magic. Design and procurement take forever, and delay expands costs. Regulation adds frills. Political will breaks down. And the best-laid plans seem to crumble at the same pace as the “stuff.” Add into that mix the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska when the value of infrastructure investment caught a massive public-relations black eye.

As our city spends more and more on pension benefits (next year. 18 percent of the General Fund will be spent to pay for service rendered to us in the past) and other personnel costs, less is available to support the investment in the renewal of a fast-aging physical plant. This is a condition that will need to be dealt with if the next Philadelphia century has any prospect for prosperity.

One essential element of infrastructure renewal will happen if we simply open our eyes to its benefits. Some of these benefits are readily apparent.

I live in Mount Airy. For more than 30 years I watched the Allen Lane train station fall into such a state of disrepair I was pretty certain it would actually fall down. Long marked for replacement, my home station was a “shovel-ready project” perfect for Obama stimulus money. Eighteen months and $7.6 million later, the station now has a new 100-year shelf life and represents a major improvement for the neighborhood. I feel proud of it and, frankly, proud of SEPTA for accomplishing it. The quality of the workmanship is impressive, as are the design and materials.

I can also see what the replacement of the South Street Bridge means to the city. I used to worry about the safety of this facility whenever I drove across it. Now it is a magnificent gateway to University City. The vision painted by Penn and Drexel of west-side access along the Schuylkill connecting Center City to the campus world is vividly clarified by the success of this $67 million investment. The Philadelphia Streets Department succeeded in making this, one of its largest capital projects ever, something for all to take pride in.

I have wondered about and watched the wastewater outflow work done in the shadow of the US 1/Roosevelt Boulevard bridges high above Kelly Drive in East Falls. That work seemed interminable. It’s finally done and what had been ripped apart is now a wonderful garden covering a massive below-ground fix to the outflow of storm water that races into the river after each rainfall. Kudos to the Philadelphia Water Department!

These and dozens of other improvements will be taken for granted by most of us, but in their totality—albeit incrementally—will help make Philadelphia a livable place and are essential if we are to have the future that most want here.

Our real challenge is how to finance and accelerate so many of these long-overdue replacements, catch up on maintenance and repairs, and do it all before London Bridge falls down. It’s one more major piece in the puzzle that is Philadelphia’s future.