Center City: A Look at The State of Our Infrastructure

For generations, Philadelphia has been a city of residents and commuters, creating a diverse city with a bustling downtown district and thriving satellite commercial centers connected by the original grid of surface streets and the newer web of interstates and expressways.

Trains snake through hidden cuts in the city as buses trudge up and down their routes, and the subway zips back and forth. As commuters flow in, so does electricity, gas, water, sewage, and information, comprising the utility infrastructure that is just as important as the transportation one.

Each citizen knows how complex these systems are, yet for most they rarely give it all a second thought.

However, those same people are also feeling the struggles of years of infrastructural decay in ways they may not even realize. The junction of I-76 with US 1 for example, costs commuters a combined 300,000 hours per year, according to a study by the American Highway Users Alliance. The study does not detail what impacts this may have but it does beg the question: how much more work or leisure could be done or had with 300,000 extra hours spread around?pelligrine_netrality

Many factors work together to shape the current state of the city’s infrastructure.

Businesses rely on the import and export of goods coming through the regional seaports and freight rail systems. Businesses boost the economy, allowing for better healthcare and education for workers. Those service industries thrive and require more infrastructure, which leads to a benefit for the community. And above all else is fuel extraction, transportation, distribution, and generation into power, a necessity for making all else possible. But unlike many cities which rely on imports, the future seems to be pointing to Philadelphia becoming an energy exporter with the rise of fracking in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale.

What many do not see are the underlying deficiencies of the utility infrastructure that has as much, if not more of an impact on quality of life. From stormwater and sewage management to critical pieces of telecommunication infrastructure, these constructions are the vital organs of the city; the many moving parts that work in unison to make it function. But despite often being well designed, because of the stresses associated with a city of such a size, this infrastructure is in dire condition.

The evidence is in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ report cards, in which they analyze each aspect of a state’s infrastructure and provide a letter grade. While Philadelphia and its population of more than one million is lumped somewhat unfairly with the rest of the commonwealth, such as the far less populated Wayne and Greene counties where these categories are magnified, the report card’s findings are not exactly off the mark.

According to the most recent ASCE report card for Pennsylvania in 2014, the state is below average or average in every infrastructural institution, with only the parks system, freight rail, and hazardous waste treatment receiving a B- and B for the latter. Wastewater bottoms out the list with a D-, with everything else falling somewhere in the high C to high D range.

Matt Cabrey, the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, rejects the ASCE’s report, countering that compared to other major cities, Philadelphia and the region are much better off.

“There are of course some issues,” he said. “But since we live here, we aren’t able to compare ourselves with anywhere else. The Greater Philadelphia region is in fact in a much better place, comparatively speaking, than most others.”

When judging how Philadelphia fares in comparison to the rest of the commonwealth, take public transportation for example. Pennsylvania was issued a dismal D.


In the 2015 SEPTA statistics report, an estimated total of more than 180,000 Philadelphians ride the rails daily. With so many using public transit to get to work, school and otherwise, the demand is outmatching the supply. Too many SEPTA stations become overcrowded and people are left with the frustration of waiting for the limited number of trains that pass through. On-time rates become compromised and the archaic underground railway becomes a bane of everyone’s existence.

Many millennials, now in their adult years, are returning to the city to live, study and work alongside the baby boomers.  This generation is the face of its future. The time is now to think ahead in terms of the necessary steps in restoring the infrastructure to its former beauty and improving the transportation and technology in a way that benefits everyone. The dilapidated infrastructure of decades past must give way to a stronger, safer and mobile world. From the simplest of renovations, such as patching potholed streets, to the most advanced, such as the laying of fiber optic cables and creating energy hubs, the seeds of the future must be planted now. There is hope on the horizon, and it begins with the new generation.

Young activists and community leaders are leading the charge on the forefront of change, and organizations such as Engineers Without Borders encourage local college students and residents to become the voice of their respective neighborhoods. The hope is that communities that are often overlooked in their needs can have them met and satisfied.


“We are hoping to take on long-term domestic projects,” said Walt Walker, president of Engineers Without Borders’ Philadelphia chapter. “We want to apply some engineering expertise, perhaps under the theme of the Philadelphia Water Department’s ‘Green City, Clean Waters’ initiative or potentially partnering with SEPTA. We want to do something that bring communities together to expand our capacity and have a bigger impact in the city.”

Many organizations, grassroots and through government, have made strides in correcting many of the infrastructure dilemmas the city is facing. 

The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce has encouraged infrastructure revitalization through the development of their “Roadmap for Growth.” This plan tackles some of the key issues with Philadelphia’s education and healthcare systems, and provides insight into improving the business sector, which in turn could trickle down to the civic community.

Improving the economic state of the city helps with revitalizing neighborhoods and ridding them of blight and deterioration.

“What is unique about the ‘Roadmap for Growth’ is that the initiative began not knowing who the candidates for mayor were going to be,” said Cabrey. “The desire was to provide, as the name suggests, a roadmap. They would then have the potential to utilize this information and depending on their views, implement it in different ways.”

More than a decade ago, former mayor Ed Rendell pushed strongly for investment in fixing infrastructure. Only time will tell what plans Mayor Jim Kenney has to fix the city. One thing is certain: He certainly has a viable starting point thanks to these resources. 

The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC), an organization that dedicates itself to regional planning, business growth and analyzing new and innovative ways to make greater Philadelphia better, is looking towards the future with great promise. They are responsible for the entire tristate area, while also focusing on Philadelphia through a hyperlocal lens.

Mike Boyer, the Associate Director of Planning with the DVRPC, has a hand in the regional planning process and has worked alongside projects such as the “Future Forces” study, analyzing conditions that will change the state of infrastructure, hopefully for the better. Similar to the chamber of commerce’s roadmap, “Future Forces” lays the foundation for city growth. From community demographics to modes of transportation, the entire infrastructural spectrum is being addressed.

“They came up with five future forces that are going to have an impact on our region,” Boyer said. “The first one is being called ‘Enduring Urbanism,’ which is the impact of Millennials with Baby Boomers moving back into urban areas and really invigorating a lot of our older towns. The second is ‘Free Agent Economy.’ We’ve seen a lot of restructuring of the work environment.  The third is ‘Transportation on Demand.’ Zipcar, Uber, Lyft. These companies are revolutionizing how we transport ourselves. The fourth is the U.S. energy boom. Oil and natural gas from North Dakota and Northern Pennsylvania are empowering cities to reshape their economic profiles. And the fifth is severe climate disruption, which without the proper precautions could radically alter the economic and societal landscapes.”

The Philadelphia Water Department has launched its “Green City, Clean Waters” initiative, reducing stormwater pollution and managing overflows through the implementation of green infrastructure, benefitting not only the quality of water but also the environmental landscape of the city. Since its inception in 2011, more than 1,100 green infrastructure tools have been added, and the city is saving an estimated $5.6 billion in stormwater management. 

“It involves building a lot of rain gardens,” said Adam Levine of the Philadelphia Water Department. “There are all sorts of ways the department is devising in using parkland and street-side tree trenches, where the water, instead of going down into the sewer and causing overflows, goes into a tree trench and then it soaks into the ground.”


PennDOT recently provided more than $33 million to repair roads, walkability and bridges, which comparatively are some of the worst in the entire country. Massive overhauls of the bike lanes, the parkway and I-95 will make commutes quicker and safer for drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.

“We have a program that goes through our metropolitan planning organization, the DVRPC, and as part of their mandate, there are limits on the amount of new vehicular capacity the region is committed to build,” said (name) of PennDOT. “The program is for extensive multimodal facilities, trails, and bike lanes. These large scale sustainability issues come through our planning partners.”

As the building of new infrastructure continues, protecting historical infrastructure should coincide.

The Northeast section is home to some of the oldest historical landmarks in the entire region, dating back to early colonial times. These churches, meeting houses, and homes need constant care in order to preserve them from extinction.

“A lot of the resources from the government and organizations goes to Center City and Old City, but there is a lot of history that goes up the ‘King’s Highway,’ Frankford Avenue, all the way to Bucks County, “said Jason Sherman, director of the documentary The King’s Highway, which highlights the history of Northeast Philadelphia on what is now Frankford Avenue. “In a lot of these places, the buildings that are threatened are three or four hundred years old, so that is focus of the film, telling the story from the 1600s to the present day.”


Many landmarks have already been lost however, as have countless neighborhoods for superhighways or bungled residential zoning. Going forward it will be important to remember lessons such as the Logan Triangle or the misconceived I-695 while we continue to improve, replace, and redesign our ever expanding infrastructure.

– Text, Video and Photos by Daniel Pelligrine and Mario Corsaro.

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