Missing and wanted: sidewalk repairs
If you live, work or play in Atlanta, you’ve probably tripped on a broken or uneven sidewalk. Not surprising, since City officials estimate that one fourth of the sidewalks here need to be repaired or replaced.
In 2010, the Public Works Department estimated the cost of repairing broken sidewalks at $152 million. Five years have passed, so $200 million may be more accurate.
Fixing broken sidewalks requires two things: a good sidewalk policy and funding needed to implement it. Atlanta’s leaders have taken important steps forward, but they need to pick up the pace on both.
Atlanta’s sidewalk policy is as busted as its sidewalks
To make real progress, Atlanta needs to replace its dysfunctional sidewalk policy, which 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.
Sidewalks are shared resources. Maintenance should be paid for by all taxpayers, not just those who happen to live next to a sidewalk. On many streets, sidewalks exist on just one side of the road.
Atlanta has a high poverty rate, and people who walk should not have to endure unsafe sidewalks simply because a property owner cannot afford to pay for repairs.
Much of the damage to sidewalks is beyond the property owner’s control. This includes car wrecks, illegal parking, street trees, and missing curbs.
Are sidewalk repairs an unfunded mandate?
In 2014, a majority of Atlanta City Council members co-sponsored an ordinance that would remove Public Works’ authority to bill property owners for repairs to sidewalks. Due to resistance from the mayor’s office, the bill was held in committee for a year.
Eager to get the bill out of committee, City Council members approved a substitute ordinance in July 2015. The ordinance authorizes Public Works to use public funds to pay for repairs. It also prohibits Public Works from billing property owners for repairs until other available funds have been exhausted.
But to our dismay, the ordinance maintains the “option” of billing property owners for repairs to adjacent sidewalks.
Documents provided by the mayor’s office stated that eliminating the option of billing property owners for repairs would create an unfunded mandate — and that funding this mandate would financially cripple the city.
Mayor Reed should know better. An unfunded mandate already exists: the Americans with Disabilities Act. If the city continues to invest too little in sidewalk repairs, it could face legal action that puts the courts in charge of how Atlanta spends our transportation dollars.
The use of tax dollars to pay for repairs at some locations makes the policy of billing 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?
The city is unlikely to exercise its authority to bill property owners, so maintaining this option is unlikely to prompt sidewalk repairs. Instead, continuing to authorize Public Works to bill property owners may keep city officials comfortable approving budgets that grossly underfund sidewalk repairs.
What are other cities doing?
The mayor’s office also stated that many cities have laws requiring property owners to pay for repairs. That’s correct. But most cities with such ordinances have dysfunctional sidewalk repair programs.
More and more cities are replacing laws similar to Atlanta’s with ones that treat sidewalks as shared resources and use tax dollars to pay for repairs. Washington, D.C. Charleston and Charlotte are just a few examples. Most cities in the Atlanta region also use tax dollars to pay for sidewalk repairs.
In several cities, the poor condition of sidewalks has triggered class action lawsuits over violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Sacramento, for example, settled a class action lawsuit by agreeing to allocate 20 percent of all transportation dollars to sidewalks and curb ramps for the next 30 years. Los Angeles recently settled a lawsuit for $1.4 billion. Lawsuits are now pending in Long Beach, California and New York City.
Show sidewalks the money!
For years, officials at Public Works blamed lack of funding for the poor condition of Atlanta’s sidewalks. During the past year, however, elected officials stepped up to the plate. Most important, they recognized the need to invest more in sidewalk maintenance.
In February, 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 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. Public Works Commissioner Richard Mendoza estimates the cost of annual sidewalk disintegration at $15 million. Given that, it’s unlikely the new infrastructure account will provide enough to keep up with annual sidewalk decay, let alone address the backlog of broken sidewalks.
The ordinance passed in July 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. Given that, promoting a fair share of funding for sidewalk repairs will remain an ongoing battle.
Infrastructure bonds give sidewalks the short end of the stick
In March, voters approved bonds that enable Atlanta to invest $188 million to repair bridges, roads, traffic signals and sidewalks. We applaud Atlanta officials and voters for recognizing the importance of routine infrastructure maintenance.
Through the end of 2014, the project list allocated $40 million to sidewalk repairs and $35 million to install or repair curb ramps. But not long thereafter, the money for sidewalks vanished – and the money for curb ramps dropped to $5 million.
People who participated in Town Hall meetings or made online comments about the infrastructure project list expressed strong support for funding sidewalk repairs. Despite that, city officials pulled the rug out from under our feet.
The Public Works Department now estimates that bonds will enable it to invest $16.3 million in sidewalks and curb ramps. If a street is resurfaced, sidewalks — if they exist on it and are broken — will be repaired as well. Likewise for locations where traffic signals or bridges are repaired.
That’s better than nothing, but still quite discouraging. Many of these projects are not aligned with where sidewalk repairs are needed most. From the perspective of people who walk, Atlanta’s project selection process seems like the tail wagging the dog.
Documenting needs and holding authorities accountable
Transportation planners at PEDS recently inventoried conditions on Boulevard, Howell Mill, Campbellton and other roads where Atlanta’s will use bonds to pay for safety improvements. They also engaged Atlanta’s transportation professionals in walking tours to point out hazards and recommend solutions.
Everyone agreed: safe crossing treatments and changes that discourage speeding are essential. But many projects are underfunded, so continued vigilance at planning meetings and outreach to elected officials is essential.
Sally Flocks, President & CEO of PEDS, will serve on Atlanta’s Infrastructure Bond Technical Advisory Committee. This helps enable to us to ensure that the needs of people who walk will not be an oversight on bond-funded projects.
Shortchanging sidewalk repairs is unacceptable
The ordinance Atlanta passed in July 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. Given that, promoting a fair share of funding for sidewalk repairs remains an ongoing battle for all of us.
Contrary to claims by the mayor’s office, paying for sidewalk repairs will not “financially cripple” the city. If Atlanta can find money to pay for stadiums and streetcars, it can also find money to repair sidewalks. As many of us recall, city officials stated similar concerns about sewer repairs. But when push came to shove, Atlanta got it done.
Setting maintenance priorities is essential
The July ordinance requires Public Works to implement repairs “upon a prioritized basis.” It doesn’t, however, define what factors Public Works should use to set priorities.
The current first-come, first-served system must be replaced by one that considers multiple factors.
- How bad is the problem? Is the sidewalk located where it’s especially dangerous to walk in the road?
- How important is the sidewalk to people who walk? Is it near a school, park or on a transit route?
- And what about demographics? Do many seniors, children, people who don’t own cars or have disabilities want to walk here?
Researchers at Georgia Tech have gathered data that answers these questions. The next step: helping Public Works incorporate their findings into an equitable prioritization system.
Make spending, needs and activities transparent
The ordinance approved requires Public Works to make quarterly reports on how much it spent on sidewalk repairs — and where.
That’s a good step forward, but far more is needed.
- What will it cost to repair sidewalks that Public Works lacks funding to address?
- How many letters did it send asking property owners to pay for repairs to adjacent sidewalks?
- And what did Public Works do if the property owner was unwilling to pay to repair the sidewalk?
By calculating and reporting this information, Public Works will enable city officials and taxpayers to know how well the current sidewalk maintenance program works. What share of the estimated need is the city actually addressing?
With your continued support, we’ll inspire Atlanta officials to answer these questions.
Keep sidewalks accessible to all users
Broken sidewalks are not the only barrier to people who walk or use wheelchairs in Atlanta. Closed sidewalks in construction zones, overgrown vegetation, misplaced signage and vehicles parked on sidewalks all create challenges.
Without doubt, we have our work cut out for us. Making Atlanta a great place to walk is easier said than done. Passion, persistence and patience are all essential. And it’s your support that makes effective advocacy possible. Join the revolution!