Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Half of the District's roads and sidewalks are considered subpar

March 6, 2012 - 02:22 PM
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(Photo: flickr/daquellamanera)

Half of all D.C. roads, federal and local, have been found wanting and are ranked "poor" or "fair" quality, the District Department of Transportation recently revealed. We're talking roughly 518 miles out of 1034 total overall: just over 50%. The local roads, sadly, fare worse than federal.

In Washington, D.C., 56% of our local streets are considered of fair or poor quality as opposed to good or excellent, according to DDOT's recent performance review before the D.C. Council. We have 598 miles of local streets in D.C overall, so this translates into nearly 335 miles of subpar roadways. Despite that bummer of a statistic, the agency says local roads experienced a "slight improvement" over years past, and in 2011, DDOT resurfaced and improved 41 center-lane miles for a cool $5.4 million. The city's goal is to improve 2% of these local roadways to the point where officials can shift about a dozen miles into the positive categories. Sidewalks, meanwhile, aren't much better, with 53% ranked fair or poor. The District also has 436 miles of federal road, examined every year, which are in somewhat better condition than local — only 42% of those are ranked fair or poor (an additional 183 miles of mediocre road). Our local roads are examined every two years.

The District's roadway assessment is even less encouraging when you consider that more than a fifth of all roads are ranked as "poor," most of which are local and not federal streets. DDOT has enough risky traffic conditions without crumbling infrastructure contributing to the danger (see the 24 most dangerous intersections for pedestrians).

"The challenge in the District is heavily traveled roads and an underfunded system, given the volume of traffic," said Frank Moretti, director of policy and research at the National Transportation Research Group (TRIP).

These subpar roads stand in contrast to about 250 miles of D.C. federal and local road that ranks as "excellent" and nearly 270 combined miles of road that count as "good" (Note: The hard numbers are approximate — in DDOT's performance review, the officials break down the categories by percentage, and the federal road percentages add up to 101%. I've asked DDOT for a clearer breakdown with the hard numbers).

Chocolate strawberries
Cherry Blossom spring. (Photo: flickr/robeposse)

One transportation woe, at least, won't be quite so bad in this coming year, thanks to warmer weather. "It’s definitely the warmest modern-day meteorological record," the Capital Weather Gang noted recently, reporting that February 2012 is the fourth warmest on record. Despite this week's chill, 2012 is a year of remarkably pleasant temperatures so far, and we'll experience fewer potholes as a result. The District Department of Transportation recently revealed to AAA that they've received a 22% drop in the number of pothole service requests. The average number of requests was 5.8 a day from October to February (compared to 7.6 last year over that period).

Potholes prove an exhausting obstacle for many commuters out there, from drivers to bicyclists. Councilmember Mary Cheh, head of the transportation committee, brought up this problem last week when considering what bicyclists face. Just look at the surface of 15th Street, she said.

"It's filled with potholes," Cheh remarked from the dais.

The D.C. government appears to successfully manage potholes when they're reported, at least. Most known ones end up closed, according to DDOT documents. Last year the city filled more than 5,000 potholes and the year before, more than 7,000. Impressive ... but the hard work doesn't make up for the overall assessment of local District roads, which strikes me as decidedly mediocre. If you encounter a gnarly pothole yourself, you can submit a service request by calling 311. "DDOT's standard is to repair potholes within 3 business days (72 hours) of the time they are reported," the agency notes. Perhaps the warm weather means our 2012 Potholepalooza won't be quite so dramatic as last year? "I want to assure residents we are not going to neglect our core services — and that includes filling every pothole," Mayor Vince Gray said last March. I can't wait to see our city's Pothole Killer back in action.

If only that machine will fix all the woes that hold the city's 518 subpar miles back. Will fewer potholes really change the state of hundreds of miles of District road? In mid-2009, TRIP estimated the D.C. metro area's poor roads — 60% of the metro area's were assessed as poor or mediocre then — cost each resident about $458 although hopefully that's a number that's dropped in years since as conditions improved. Up until two years ago, DDOT spokesperson Monica Hernandez says the city's efforts primarily concerned "milling and paving" but that $30 million of federal funds in recent years has allowed more "preservation of our assets." Still, TRIP suggests that D.C.'s roads are far worse than what you'd expect nationally — "32% of America’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition," the organization noted in a fact sheet from last fall. But in D.C., poor and fair roads account for more than 50%. Be careful out there, commuters.

Update, March 8, 4:45 p.m.: DDOT has relayed the full percentage breakdown of the federal roads, which in the initial documents added up to 101%. There's also a surprise mystery category for roads that's even worse than "poor," I discovered. The 436 miles of federal road fall into these categories:

Excellent (29.702%), Good (28.674%), Fair (29.148%), Poor (12.320%), and Failed (.156%)

The extra percentage point comes from combining "Poor" and "Failed" and rounding up in three instances. Also, if you're curious which D.C. roads are federal and which are local, DDOT referred me to this map. Anything not listed as "local" falls into the federal category, DDOT's Hernandez tells me.

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