Viewpoint: District must act on deteriorating local roadways

D.C. officials kicked off the 2016 Potholepalooza in the 3200 block of Brandywine Street NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/April 2016)

Four years ago, I drove through the District on my way home from two months in Florida, and as a 40-year resident of D.C., I was shocked at the condition of our streets. I assumed it had been a hard winter and that they would soon be repaired, but that didn’t happen. Our streets remain in bad shape. Here’s what some of our neighbors have said:

“I have blown two tires and a rim on Garfield alone. If one reports a pothole all that is done is the temporary filler which dissolves rapidly.”

“Could not agree more! I blew out a tire on the ramp from Mass Ave to Rock Creek Park. The roads on nearly all of my regular driving routes are unacceptable.”

“I had to ride in an ambulance recently and the jolting was almost unbearable.”

And so on …

So a group of us held two meetings with Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh, chair of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, and officials from the D.C. Department of Transportation to see what could be done. We showed them the survey of “Horrible Roads” that Wesley Heights advisory neighborhood commissioner Chuck Elkins had prepared, listing dozens of streets in our neighborhoods that need repair. We talked about the poor substance the District has been using to fill potholes (it doesn’t last and causes more potholes). We talked about the odd priorities the city seems to have — fixing barely used streets (Fulton Street NW) and ignoring highly trafficked ones (Western Avenue NW).

Council member Cheh promised to hold a hearing of her committee — which she did at the end of October — and the Transportation Department promised to look into our complaints and provide us with a list of its priorities for street repair. 

One result we have seen is that the city is now using hot asphalt to fill potholes instead of the material that has caused so many problems. We have also seen some important street repavings recently — Garfield Street and the intersection of Brandywine and 46th being two examples.

But there is so much more that needs to be done.

Here’s what we’ve learned about the process. Mayor Muriel Bowser and the Transportation Department has made a five-year commitment to repair/replace all poor and at-risk-of-becoming-poor roads. A third of D.C. roads fall into that category. The average rating of the roads in D.C. is 30 out of 100. (That’s not good.) Some roads in the city having ratings of 5.

There is basically only one contractor for all the repaving in the District, and that firm (Fort Myer Construction) doles out the work to various subcontractors. Council member Cheh has suggested breaking the work into smaller packages so there can be more competition. That sounds like a very good idea.

Funding for roads has increased over the past few years, due to Cheh’s efforts. Each ward now receives $4 million per year. That’s up from $700,000 per ward per year several years ago. But that full amount can disappear on one road if the infrastructure needs full replacement.

Transportation Department officials have promised to give us the list they prepare that prioritizes road repair. That will allow us to see what streets are on the list and what order they are in terms of likely repair. The agency has also agreed to have a community liaison for each ward, and the ANCs will be able to work with that person within their areas.

Improving D.C. roads is long overdue. We need to hold the Transportation Department accountable for the actions promised and the money to be spent on making our travel safer and smoother. If you see a problem with a street, be sure to call 311 and put in a work order. That is critical to getting the job in the system. If nothing happens as a result, contact your advisory neighborhood commissioner and the Transportation Department directly. We need to stay actively involved in pushing the Transportation Department, the D.C. Council and the mayor to get these streets back in the condition that the capital of this country deserves.

Linda Gustitus is a resident of American University Park.