Show us the data – and the money!
Walking connects people and is the cornerstone of a thriving, livable city. It’s also essential to our health and a catalyst for economic development. A well-maintained sidewalk network is also one of the best ways we can help older adults maintain their independence.
Despite that, Atlanta’s elected officials continue to kick the enormous backlog of broken sidewalks down the road.
Fixing Atlanta’s broken sidewalks requires two things: a good sidewalk policy and the funding needed to implement it.
Analyzing sidewalk problems and identifying solutions both require data.
How big is the backlog of missing curb ramps and broken sidewalks? And how much will it cost to eliminate it?
No one knows – and Atlanta officials have made little effort to find out.
We’ve asked government officials to provide reports and are awaiting responses. For now, the 2010 State of the City’s Transportation Infrastructure and Fleet Inventory Report is the best we can find. Using data from 2008, it estimated the cost of repairing broken sidewalks and curb ramps at $152 million. It also estimated the annual cost of sidewalk and curb ramp deterioration at $20 million.
Seven years have passed since the report was published. Since then, construction costs have increased significantly. Equally important, researchers at Georgia Tech conducted a comprehensive study of sidewalk and curb ramp conditions in Atlanta and shared findings with Public Works. Conversations with government officials suggest that the City has not prepared an updated report.
We expect the true cost of addressing the backlog of broken sidewalks to be at least double the 2010 estimate.
At the May 23 Utilities Committee meeting, Sally Flocks, President & CEO of PEDS, requested an updated report on the state of Atlanta’s sidewalk infrastructure. Yet even without updates, we know the backlog is enormous and will be expensive to fix.
How much is Atlanta investing to address the backlog of broken sidewalks? And what is it investing in?
In 2015 Atlanta created a Public Improvement and Infrastructure Account. Including maintenance funds in the annual budget is a big step forward. Phased in during the next five years, Atlanta will allocate 3.5 percent of the City’s general fund budget each year to this account. By 2020, this is likely to come to over $20 million.
Terrific improvement, with one catch: the money can be used to repair roads and bridges as well as sidewalks.
A separate ordinance approved in 2015 authorizes Public Works to use public funds to pay for repairs, if funding is available. It doesn’t, however, set a minimum that the city must allocate to sidewalk repairs each year
The ordinance also requires Public Works to make quarterly reports on how much it spent on sidewalk repairs and where. Conversations with government officials suggest that Public Works hasn’t done so. In response to our request at the Utilities Committee meeting, Council members asked Public Works officials to provide reports.
Has Atlanta fulfilled its commitment to install missing curb ramps?
In 2009 the City of Atlanta signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Justice Department regarding missing curb ramps. In it, Atlanta agreed to install or repair curb ramps at intersections on all roads that had been resurfaced since the Americans with Disabilities Act was approved in 1992. The agreement established a three-year deadline. Despite that, a large share of the intersections on these streets still lack curb ramps. At the Utilities Committee meeting, Council members also asked Public Works Commissioner William Johnson to provide a status report.
Is the sidewalk policy an excuse for doing nothing?
Atlanta’s sidewalk policy makes property owners responsible for paying for repairs to sidewalks adjacent to their property. The policy is unfair, politically unpopular and nearly impossible to enforce. To make real progress, Atlanta needs to replace it.
Most City Council members recognize that. In 2014 a majority co-sponsored a bill that assigned responsibility financial responsibility for repairs to the City, and Public Works would no longer be allowed to bill abutting property owners for repairs.
Mayor Reed objected and convinced council members to approve a substitute ordinance. The ordinance retains the “option” of billing property owners for repairs to adjacent sidewalks. Doing so, the administration stated, prevented sidewalk maintenance from being an “unfunded mandate.”
PEDS was founded over 20 years ago — and during that time, Public Works has rarely sent letters asking property owners to pay for repairs. In 2013 the Department notified dozens of homeowners, which sparked public outrage.
In response to questions from PEDS a year later, Public Works Commissioner Richard Mendoza said the department had “backed off” on enforcement and was instead sending “courtesy notices” to property owners whose land abuts broken sidewalks.
In many ways, the new ordinance is worse than the one we had before. The use of tax dollars to pay for repairs at some locations makes the policy of billing other property owners even more unfair. Why should anyone be asked to pay for repairs on their street if their tax dollars are being used to repair sidewalks elsewhere in Atlanta.
If City officials want to keep the existing sidewalk policy, they need to show that it works.
- How many households received letters asking them to pay for sidewalk repairs?
- How many households hired contractors or paid for repairs?
- How much money did the City collect?
- What steps did the City take if a property owner was unwilling to pay for repairs?
PEDS has urged Atlanta officials to gather and share this information. If the City fails to provide answers or if the answer is zero, we will continue to assume Atlanta’s sidewalk ordinance is simply an excuse for doing nothing.
Your voice matters.
2017 is an election year, and the mayor’s race is hotly contested. When you speak with candidates, please ask them to commitment to two changes:
- Replace Atlanta’s sidewalk ordinance.
- Include a $20 million line item for sidewalk repairs in the annual general fund budget.
If candidates want Atlanta to become a walkable city, they need to put the City’s money where their mouth is.