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City ponders giant increase in sidewalk investments

Wednesday, May 11, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

Now that Uber and Lyft have driven over the horizon, some are looking to their feet for transportation options. At the moment, the odds are good that those feet may be standing on broken or incomplete sidewalks. But if the Austin Public Works Department has its way, that could change, slowly.

In line with that aspiration, the Zoning and Platting Commission voted unanimously to recommend the 2016 Sidewalk Master Plan and Americans with Disabilities Act transition plan at its most recent meeting. The plan prioritizes sidewalks within a quarter-mile of schools, bus stops and parks. If implemented in full, it would address 67 percent of these high-priority sidewalks over a 10-year period. It would also cost the city an estimated $40 million annually.

John Eastman, who is with the city’s Public Works Department, told commissioners that the plan aimed to “change the status quo on how Austin deals with sidewalks.” But even with that lofty goal, he was measured in his assessment of what could be done in the face of absent and crumbling sidewalks throughout the city.

“This is, as much as anything, a triage plan,” said Eastman. “If we painted quarter-mile circles around every school in the city, there would be $1.4 billion worth of very high-priority sidewalks.”

Right now, Austin has about 2,400 miles of sidewalks and about 2,500 miles of absent sidewalks. Eastman explained that this deficiency was due in part to the city annexing new land in need of sidewalks. He said Austin has been “annexing absent sidewalks at the rate of 30 miles a year for the last 70 years.” That rate has slowed to 10 miles over the past decade, but with 12 to 15 miles built every year through the city’s sidewalk program, he said, the city was “just barely keeping up.”

And, to make matters worse, an assessment of the existing sidewalks found that 80 percent were “functionally deficient” due to decades of deferred maintenance.

“That’s a problem,” said Eastman. “These are not inviting environments.”

To remedy that, the recommended plan includes a 10-year goal of 750-plus miles of sidewalk improvements, requiring $15 million in funding annually. The goal is much more ambitious than the 40 miles of improvements made these past 10 years. It would be, as Eastman pointed out, “a 1,700 percent improvement.”

In addition, Public Works is hoping that a bond program could fund $25 million per year for new sidewalks, which would enable the city to build 39 miles of new sidewalks per year for the next 10 years. That goal could be funded by a $252 million bond program, which would likely be on the ballot this November.

However, even if those goals are implemented, Eastman noted that after 10 years “there would be more sidewalks to fix than we’ve actually fixed, and there would certainly be way more sidewalks to build than we’ve actually built.”

Not all of the improvement will involve construction. Public Works is also launching a public awareness campaign encouraging Austinites to lend a hand in clearing vegetation from sidewalks that can render them impassable.

Though the plan was recommended unanimously, Commissioner Susan Harris commented that the impact that more sidewalks would have on traffic congestion would be “negligible.”

“I support investment in sidewalks, but I think it’s a drop in the bucket in terms of how far the needle is going to move (toward) reducing automobile congestion in our city,” said Harris.

Eastman said he agreed, but he encouraged the commission to think of sidewalks as part of a network that could help people access transit stops. He pointed out that, in that sense, the improvements were an investment in future transit as well.

Austin is one of the 13 percent of cities nationwide that accepts responsibility for sidewalk building and sidewalk repairs as basic transportation needs and have funding for these projects — even if that funding does not meet demand.

Photo by Paul Sullivan made available through a Creative Commons license.

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