Big jobs, small pieces
Philadelphia has a rich past. Last month, the home of the Liberty Bell celebrated the 300th birthday of Ben Franklin, one of its most noted citizens. Since its founding, the “City of Brotherly Love” has grown and modernized; today, Mr. Franklin would hardly recognize it.
The city is home to 1.5 million people, and while it casts a protective eye toward its history, it also must provide adequate, up-to-date public works infrastructure for its citizenry. In order to deliver more efficient service, the Philadelphia public works department split in 1999 into a number of factions, each covering a different public works arena.
“For a large city, with very diverse needs for a sizable population, the amount of specialization needed for various services and products provided requires specific departments for each of these services and products,” said streets commissioner Clarena I.W. Tolson. “Although there are certainly challenges related to the size of large-city public works operations, there are also great opportunities to form synergies among separate departments, and separate divisions within departments.”
Serving one of the nation's largest cities is no small feat and requires a significant amount of manpower. The streets department alone has a staff of more than 1800 people; its fiscal year 2006 operating budget stands at $152.7 million. Other departments cover water/sewer, public buildings/facilities, recreation/park facilities, and aviation. Each department is headed by a commissioner, who reports to managing director Pedro A. Ramos; his responsibilities also include overseeing police and fire emergency operations.
“This allows us to each focus our resources on our individual tasks, but have the interagency support to work together to achieve our common goal, which is to serve the citizens of Philadelphia,” said Tolson.
The streets department faces many of the same problems common to all public works agencies, large or small. It has seen decreases in capital funding, staff reductions over the past several years, increasing costs, and a mounting difficulty in getting projects off the ground.
“The various environmental and historic concerns in a city as old as ours also tend to make project implementation more difficult than in the past, as these concerns must be determined, accommodated, and respected,” said Tolson. “This often increases the time required to develop projects in design.”
The Philadelphia streets department consists of two primary divisions. Sanitation offers integrated solid waste management, which includes refuse collection and disposal and recycling, street cleaning, and a household hazardous waste collection program. Part of this division, the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee, manages the city's volunteer network of 6800 block captains and supports their efforts to beautify the city's neighborhoods. Sanitation also includes units dedicated to public education regarding solid waste and recycling, and to policy enforcement.
Personnel of Philadelphia's highway division are charged with constructing, repairing, and maintaining more than 2400 miles of city streets. The departmental division manages all snow and ice removal operations on the city's streets. In fiscal year 2005, the division repaired 20,800 potholes, and it restored 1000 cave-ins and 7400 ditches. Its engineering unit performs all surveying functions, designs city streets and highways, plans and constructs city bridges, and manages major improvement and reconstruction projects. On average, there are 42 concurrent projects in progress at any given time, in various stages.
The traffic engineering unit establishes traffic regulations and institutes all appropriate controls (signs, signals, markings, and other devices) for regulating and controlling vehicular and pedestrian traffic. In Philadelphia, this includes approximately 21,000 intersections. The street lighting unit is responsible for the design, installation, operation, and maintenance of the city's street lighting system, which includes more 100,000 street lights and 18,000 alley lights.
In addition, administrators provide support services to the streets operating divisions. The team offers services in the areas of budget, accounting, planning and analysis, information technology, human resources, training and development, and communications.
Overall, the city of Philadelphia out-sources only a minimal amount of work. The highway division uses some contract forces in snow removal operations, and in milling for resurfacing roads. The transportation planning unit outsources some engineering design work, primarily related to highway/traffic signal design and railroad electrification revisions for bridges. One current bridge project, on South Street, is assigned to a design consultant; all other bridge projects are designed in house.
One of the most significant projects recently tackled by the department is the $10 million effort to revitalize North Broad Street, one of Philadelphia's major traffic carriers. The project includes modernizing traffic signals at 22 intersections, replacing more than 400 street lights, and sidewalk/landscaping “streetscape” improvements at selected locations. The project—expected to be completed in spring 2006 after 18 months of work—will enhance pedestrian safety.
There is one more active component of the Philadelphia streets department: its citizens. It benefits from community/ neighborhood groups, institutions, and business improvement districts in neighborhood beautification efforts, litter removal, and road and sidewalk maintenance. The city's partnerships with its constituents have been successful, and the town continues to foster such relationships.
Philadelphia fast facts
Population: 1.5 million
Population rank among U.S. cities: fifth
PW budget: $942 million
Web site: www.phila.gov
Hurdles: Due to budget cuts and attrition, the number of public works personnel in the city is at a 40-year low
Big project: In November, the city opened its $5.2 million Dorothy Emanuel Recreation Center, a 20,100-square-foot facility with a gymnasium, activity spaces, playground, and tennis courts