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Tom Sabulis

Broken sidewalk policy

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Moderated by Tom Sabulis

With Atlanta leaping into the top 10 walkable cities in the U.S. last week, according to one report, our attention turns to pedestrians. A local advocate criticizes the Atlanta sidewalk ordinance for unfairly putting the onus of sidewalk repairs on property owners. Separately, we asked the city to write about what it’s doing to create a more pedestrian-friendly environment.

Commenting is open.

Sidewalk repair policy busted

By Sally Flocks

If you’re like me, you’ve probably tripped on a broken or uneven sidewalk in Atlanta. It’s not surprising, since Atlanta has an estimated $152 million backlog of broken sidewalks. The city’s sidewalk ordinance, which requires property owners to pay for sidewalk repairs adjacent to their property, is a big part of the problem.

Politically unpopular, the law went unenforced for decades. Yet recently, lawsuits and settlements with injured pedestrians cost the city over $4 million. Wake up Atlanta; we can’t keep kicking maintenance down the road.

Last year, the Department of Public Works sent letters to scores of people who own property next to broken sidewalks. Two options: pay up – or hire a contractor. The letters angered property owners and elected officials. In response, Public Works backed off enforcing the ordinance in residential areas.

The city is now considering an ordinance that significantly increases costs to property owners. Currently, people who ask the city to repair sidewalks pay $3.90 per square foot, which covers the cost of materials. The proposed ordinance increases that cost to $10.28 per square foot, which also covers labor. This is a band aid that will not stick.

If approved, the 164 percent increase raises the average cost per property owner to over $4,000. Who would volunteer to pay that? It’s unlikely that elected officials will allow Public Works to force property owners to pay for sidewalk repairs.

Atlanta plans to hold a bond referendum next year. If approved, about $250 million will be allocated to maintain bridges, roads, sidewalks, traffic signals and other infrastructure. Bond money is a terrific and much-needed way to jump start repairs.

Paid off over 25 years, however, bond revenue is not a sustainable way to cover ongoing maintenance needs like sidewalks. The proposed amount for sidewalk repairs is insufficient even to keep up with ongoing decay.

Atlanta needs to take a more holistic approach to policy reform. The city’s reluctance to force property owners to pay for repairs results in a large gap between policy and reality. It’s time to move on from a policy that does not work.

People in Atlanta deserve better. Sidewalks are shared resources, just like streets. And like street resurfacing and pothole repair, sidewalk maintenance should be paid for by all taxpayers, not just those who own property next to a broken sidewalk.

More and more cities are turning to innovative funding solutions. The program Ithaca, N.Y. launched this year is excellent. It treats sidewalks as essential public assets. It also reduces administrative expenses, charges less to owners of “low-foot-traffic” lots, and makes costs and revenue predictable.

Washington, D.C.; Charlotte, N.C.; Ann Arbor, Mich., and many other cities allocate tax dollars to pay for sidewalk repairs. Most jurisdictions in the Atlanta region do so as well; Decatur, Roswell and Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties are just a few examples.

It’s clear that residents, workers and visitors want a more walkable Atlanta. Please let your City Council representatives know that now is the time to act. Sidewalk conditions will improve dramatically when city officials take responsibility for funding sidewalk funding repairs.

Sally Flocks is president and CEO of PEDS, a pedestrian safety advocacy group.

Complete approach to pedestrian access

By Tom Weyandt

Since the 2009 adoption of the Connect Atlanta Plan, the city has embraced the imperative that its transportation system must accommodate the whole range of transportation modes — automobiles, transit, bicycles and pedestrians. This rational Comprehensive Transportation Plan is a guide to ensure mobility, continued economic growth, and quality of life for citizens and visitors.

We’ve made some progress implementing this multi-modal approach through Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) plans — all of which emphasize the creation of an enhanced pedestrian environment. Most LCI plans focus on transit station areas, the most significant locations for improving the walking environment. Several LCI projects have been accomplished, but much remains to be done.

The 2011 State of the City’s Infrastructure report identified almost 2,200 miles of sidewalks in the city — 18 percent of which were deemed to be deteriorated. In addition, there are about 43,000 intersection nodes that require upgrades due to lack of adequate access for disabled persons. Comprehensive surveys have enabled the city to identify the highest-priority sidewalk needs and begin to make necessary repairs and improvements.

The Atlanta Beltline is providing vastly improved pedestrian access among neighborhoods and continues to expand, with main line trails and subsidiary trails connecting neighborhoods.

The Atlanta Streetcar project has significantly improved the pedestrian environment along its route, and future expansions will continue this approach.

The city has adopted a “Complete Streets” approach to new roadway projects that will ensure pedestrian access is not an afterthought, but a core element of future project designs.

Several Community Improvement Districts in downtown, Midtown and Buckhead have partnered with the city, or acted on their own, to improve pedestrian access on major travel corridors and near transit stations.

One of the best opportunities for substantial upgrades of pedestrian facilities will be through an infrastructure bond Mayor Kasim Reed will put before the Atlanta City Council later this year. If the Council supports the bond offering, city voters will vote on the bond referendum in early 2015.

The infrastructure bond is anticipated to be in the range of $250 million, allowing for significant investment in needed repairs. The city is beginning public meetings this month to encourage a robust public discussion of infrastructure priorities, with a focus not so much on new projects, but on fixing what is broken. Pedestrian projects should be a key element of the final project list and may include rebuilt sidewalks, access for disabled persons and a Complete Streets approach to any road project.

It is vital that citizens weigh in on priorities so an appropriate project list can be put before the voters in 2015. As city neighborhoods continue their revitalization and as transit opportunities expand, it is appropriate that the pedestrian is now seen as a key element of our transportation network.

Tom Weyandt is deputy chief operating officer for Atlanta.

 

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