Ongoing utility work gives section of Germantown traffic nightmares
Ongoing construction is causing big problems for a normally quiet sliver of Germantown.
Since spring, ongoing utility work at the corner of Wissahickon Avenue and Rittenhouse Street has resulted in numerous road closures and detours throughout the West Chelten neighborhood.
The entire community has been impacted to varying degrees, but residents of Price Street say they are bearing the brunt of the traffic-related headaches ranging from confusing, ignored detour signs to cars going the wrong direction or speeding.
Worse yet, residents say there's no coordination among the various agencies performing the work and attempts to find some relief through proper channels have gone unrewarded to date.
"There's zero accountability with this project," said Sarah Endriss, an exasperated Price Street resident.
Monitoring the scene
On a recent weekday afternoon, NewsWorks set out with Endriss to achieve a fuller understanding of the problem.
Endriss had not reached the end of her own walkway when the rumbling of backhoe could be heard, cruising down her one-way street in the wrong direction.
The stroll along the leafy, tree-lined street was otherwise uneventful until the intersection of Wissahickon Avenue was reached. There, a woman in a Dodge Durango speed-turned onto Price Street going the wrong direction, presumably to avoid the pile of construction materials awaiting her along Rittenhouse.
"Road closed! One way!" shouted Endriss.
Upon hearing that, the Durango driver replied "All right," turned around and headed back up Wissahickon Avenue past the twin sets of detour signs that she had previously ignored.
It was a small victory. Previous attempts to correct motorists' bad habits have resulted in Endriss and others getting spit at, threatened, menaced and called a variety of names unsuitable for print.
The wrong-way driving fuels even more fears because drivers doing so at high speeds put residents – including almost 40 children – at greater risk.
More than just a block
The problems aren't contained to Price Street.
Standing on his porch covered in construction-related dust, Rittenhouse Street resident Ki Rummery described a hazardous situation where cars are driving on the wrong side of the street to avoid debris from the utility work.
As a result, some neighbors have lost side-view mirrors while everyone has had to exert additional caution when exiting their vehicles.
Pointing to temporary patch work on the roadway and sidewalk, Rummery noted that it was easily washed away during rainstorms.
To further aggravate the situation, labor protestors and dozens of signs denouncing a nearby Post Brothers apartment complex are a fixture of the roadway. (Endriss noted that the giant inflatable rat ubiquitous to labor unrest has made several appearances as well.)
Throughout the interview with Rummery, cars zipped by. With nowhere to go, traffic is inevitably – and illegally – funneled through the parking lot of the Sunoco gas station.
With construction being conducted in other nearby sections of Germantown, the result is a situation where traffic is overcrowding small side streets.
It's gotten so bad that some Price Street residents have put up cones and barrels at both ends of their street at times. They've even purchased a fluorescent yellow "Slow Down" sign, with neighbors splitting the $125 cost.
Endriss and her husband James Bush have taken numerous photographs of cars going the wrong way. In one admittedly "obsessive" moment, Bush recorded 30 license plates of rogue drivers.
Despite it all, though, the couple maintained they aren't against the utility work.
"We just want it thoughtful and safe," Endriss said.
Since the initial robocalls when sewer work began, residents said official communications dropped off precipitously. To get some remedy, Endriss and others have tried reaching out to various agencies.
They said they feel that as if they've gotten the run-around from the Philadelphia Water Department, Streets Department, 39th Police District and 911. Eighth District Councilwoman Cindy Bass' office was also notified "numerous times."
"I understand there's another four or five months of this," said Endriss. "When it gets really bad, and we have nine or 10 calls into the police and calls into Cindy Bass' office, something will happen the next day. But three days later, it's back to square one."
John Digiulio, a community relations manager for PWD, said that the water/sewer project is being conducted in stages to minimize traffic disruption.
At present, work on a new water main is mostly completed, as is the first stage of the project's sewer portion.
This month, Digiulio noted that work started on the most difficult portion of the project, which involves the entire intersection of Wissahickon and Rittenhouse.
"Before this work started, in meetings and discussions with PennDOT and the Philadelphia Streets Department," he explained, "the two available options for conducting the intersection work were discussed in detail: Taking out the entire intersection at once and completing all of the necessary work in minimal time, but with major impact to traffic, versus doing the intersection work in stages."
Going with the second option came with the drawbacks of prolonging the duration of construction, and the need for several different traffic plans.
"We expect that there will be some unavoidable confusion as the work progresses from one stage and traffic plan to the next," he said, "but we stand ready to make changes and adjustments as found necessary in continuing consult with PennDOT and the Streets Department to assure our work is having the least amount of impact possible."
Digiulio said that PennDOT has assigned an inspector to this location who checks in regularly to make sure our signage is appropriate, "and that we are doing our part to make sure motorists are aware of the detours."
"The complaints that the Philadelphia Water Department has received have been addressed and handled to the best of our ability," Digiulio said. "Unfortunately, we are also aware that some motorists are ignoring the detour signs and driving the wrong way. However, we are not able to prevent this from happening as some people do not adhere to the warnings and continue to drive where they shouldn't."
Digiulio said the project should conclude this winter, adding that once work in this intersection is complete, the impact on area traffic will be greatly reduced as work proceeds up Rittenhouse toward Morris Street.
Bass and police response
Bass' spokesman Ray Jones said that in response to complaints from the neighborhood, the relevant signage was reappraised, and was found to be "adequate."
Jones said that roll-call complaints will be handled by police at the 39th District.
"We have to stay vigilant about this issue," said Jones. "We'll do the best we can in terms of managing it."
After calls to 39th District commanding officer Capt. Michael Craighead went unreturned, police department spokesman Lt. John Stanford said that posting officers at the intersection is unlikely given crime volume in other parts of the district.
Subsequent to NewsWorks' initial inquiry to police, 39th District personnel reached out to Endriss, ultimately promising to authorize written citations for all traffic violations witnessed by police in the West Chelten neighborhood.
At a community meeting held last week, 39th District Lt. Edward Bier acknowledged receiving an email from Endriss but did not detail any follow-up actions.
The Streets Department did not respond to requests for comment.
Since NewsWorks first began making inquiries in early September, the problems have continued, with both good days and bad days for residents of Price and Rittenhouse streets.
While Endriss noted that some of the signage was adjusted, she recently intercepted another misdirected motorist only to be told, "You're not the traffic police."
"I've never seen anything like this before," said Joy Wuenschel, a 49-year resident of Price Street. "Just think about what it's going to be like when it snows."