Staff Editorial: Road’s collapse illustrates need for greater proactivity

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A failed culvert pipe led to the collapse of 49th Street NW during heavy rains in August. (Brian Kapur/The Current/September 2017)

Neighbors along a stretch of 49th Street NW in Wesley Heights were growing increasingly concerned. A culvert pipe under the roadway frequently backed up, causing floodwaters to build up behind it. The road was deteriorating, and the D.C. Department of Transportation kept pushing back promised repairs.

On Aug. 8, local resident Spence Spencer warned an agency official that “the area is a heavily flooded swamp and the road continues to collapse,” according to an email chain he shared with The Current. The next day, the official replied that 49th Street remained “passable” but conceded that “we noted some new erosion … and agree that starting the project this summer is important.” However, he added, “We do not have a start date available at this time.”

It wasn’t long, however, before the Transportation Department had crews at 49th and Fulton streets NW — because, as neighbors had been predicting, the culvert failed and the road collapsed into a sinkhole. The result is an ongoing 16-week emergency road closure between Dexter and Fulton streets, which will continue into December.

The Wesley Heights sinkhole is a particularly dramatic example of the D.C. Department of Transportation’s failure to proactively address poor road conditions. Complaints abound from around the city, as roadway improvement expenses increase. This ongoing issue prompts a series of important questions: When the Transportation Department invests in our road network, is the money spent effectively? Does the agency have adequate personnel to handle road repairs quickly? Is the D.C. Council providing adequate funding, and is the department giving appropriate priority to local streets while allocating it?

Whatever the correct answer to those questions, the Transportation Department has demonstrably failed when it allows a city road to collapse into the ground — particularly since all parties were aware that 49th Street was falling apart. The agency also fails whenever it allows potholes to fester, or whenever it repairs them so poorly that they quickly form again. Providing reliable access to smooth, safe roadways is one of the agency’s basic functions, and the District has the cash to ensure it’s carried out. It’s just a matter of having the will.

We’re heartened by the fact that the Transportation Department’s new interim director, Jeff Marootian, has served as a liaison to advisory neighborhood commissioners, and even served on ANC 2A (Foggy Bottom, West End) as a George Washington University student in 2001 and 2002. This background should mean he’s plugged into grass-roots community concerns. We hope Mr. Marootian’s actions reflect that potential.