Transportation Department pledges improvements to communications, repaving

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Many District streets are in poor condition and communication with residents has been spotty of late, D.C. Department of Transportation director Leif Dormsjo acknowledged in a recent D.C. Council hearing. However, the director said his agency has plans to improve both issues.

Dormsjo was speaking during the annual performance oversight hearing on his department, held by Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment. His remarks followed hours of testimony by public witnesses, including advisory neighborhood commissioners from Chevy Chase, Cleveland Park and Petworth who blasted the agency’s dealings with their communities.

“The testimony that we had today is people complaining that DDOT is not responsive,” Cheh said. “They call for assistance, they call and call, there will be a statement of understanding and ‘things will be tended to’ — and then the ball is dropped.”

Dormsjo said that the agency has struggled with turnover among key personnel responsible for community engagement, and many officials recently had to prioritize preparations for the January inauguration. “I wasn’t surprised by the comments I heard — it has only inspired me and my team to do a better job,” Dormsjo said at the March 13 hearing. “I’m not going to deny that some of those gaps have plagued us most recently.”

He said staffers sidetracked by the inauguration have now resumed their normal duties, and the agency is working to fill vacant community liaison positions. Meanwhile, as Mayor Muriel Bowser said last Thursday in her State of the District address, the Transportation Department is developing a plan to more systematically repave streets in poor condition.

At last month’s hearing, Dormsjo said other recent policy changes will also facilitate road repairs. The agency can now be more flexible about modifying simple contracts, whereas changes used to delay a project amid a slow approval process, according to Dormsjo. Meanwhile, he said the agency will be able to conduct simple repaving work more after moving away from its former policy of prioritizing areas that also needed sidewalk improvement.

“We have made significant strides in restructuring how we do alleys and … sidewalks,” he said. “But the roadway work that we’re doing, while it has been significant, it’s really not at the level that it needs to be.”

When Cheh asked the director if she’ll hear better news at 2018’s hearing, Dormsjo expressed optimism: “I think this is going to be the best construction season of the last few years.”

Dormsjo also said the District has stopped using a “Pothole Killer” machine, which he said proved less effective than patches installed by work crews. And the agency is looking at more comprehensive ways to improve roadway conditions than its annual Potholepalooza event, whose promised 48-hour response times to potholes reported through 311 began Monday. “We really want to be doing much more milling and paving where we’re dealing with the whole block and not just doing these spot repairs,” said Dormsjo.

A number of other issues raised at the hearing regarded communication. Several advisory neighborhood commissioners complained that construction work began or fell behind schedule with no notice to the community. Cleveland Park commissioner Nancy MacWood recounted spending significant time working with the Transportation Department regarding sidewalk work on Newark Street NW, which she said was done poorly and without advance notice.

And even six months later, some items remained unaddressed. “DDOT has to understand that they have some control over the quality of life for D.C. residents, and it’s important for them to interact with the public to make sure they are helping and not causing anxiety and frustration,” MacWood said.

Meanwhile, in Chevy Chase, advisory neighborhood commissioner Chanda Tuck-Garfield shared her community’s ongoing concerns about the rehabilitation of Oregon Avenue NW. That long-delayed project went through a long, contentious design process and is now held up while the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority carries out its own work in the corridor. Community members said that the Transportation Department didn’t tell them why work had fallen behind schedule and that officials didn’t respond to messages.

Dormsjo testified later that in some cases, the agency just doesn’t have any news to share.

“With all due respect to some of the people who testified, demanding a meeting with us immediately when we don’t have all the information to discuss a project intelligently … is a waste of the community’s time and a waste of our time,” Dormsjo said. “We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t: If we come out with imperfect information, we get ferocious public feedback. If we take more time to study the merits, they say that they’ve been delayed and left in the dark.”

Ward 4 Council member Brandon Todd acknowledged the challenge, but also said there’s room for improvement. “I do agree with you the government should be prepared to discuss fully an issue, but I think it’s important to convey that to the community,” he said.

Many witnesses also voiced concerns about LED streetlights, and Cheh will hold a hearing on the issue on May 3 at 11 a.m.