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Denver voters are set to weigh in on the question in next week’s election, while also deciding on a tax that could help pay for sidewalk upgrades.
With all the talk about infrastructure in the country over the last few years, one of the most familiar transportation networks has often been overlooked and underfunded: city sidewalks. But voters in Denver this month will have a chance to change that.
They will get to decide whether to shift the responsibility of maintaining sidewalks from individual property owners to the city. The proposal on next week’s ballot would also impose a tax on property owners, to help maintain the city’s current sidewalks and add them in the many parts of town where they’re missing.
Advocates put the initiative on the ballot, after they grew frustrated with the city government’s efforts to improve sidewalks. Denver Deserves Sidewalks, the group pushing for the effort, said the proposal would lead to a full sidewalk network in every neighborhood in nine years instead of the 400 years it would take at the city’s current pace. (City officials say that, even if the ballot measure passes, it would take more than 27 years to build out the sidewalks and that the taxes won’t raise enough money.)
If the measure is approved, Denver would be one of a handful of cities that have tackled the thorny issue of building out sidewalk networks, experts say.
“Most cities put the onus of maintenance of sidewalks on the property owners,” said Wesley Marshall, a civil engineering professor at the University of Colorado Denver, who has studied sidewalk ownership in cities. But that varies significantly by region. City transportation departments in eastern cities like Boston and Washington, D.C., maintain sidewalks similar to how they keep up streets.
“Once you start moving west, cities treat sidewalks as an amenity – like a bonus – as opposed to fundamental infrastructure,” Marshall said.
What’s more, many city governments don’t even know where there are sidewalks along their streets, much less what condition they’re in.
Marshall surveyed 16 cities last year to see how much information they had about their streets and sidewalks. All of the cities kept meticulous records on where potholes appeared, and they reported being able to fill those within days. But most had no comprehensive information about the conditions of their sidewalks. Washington was the only city that provided an average response time for fixing sidewalks, and it was 270 days, Marshall said.
Many of the same frustrations have played out in Denver.
City officials do know that they are missing some 300 miles of sidewalks in the city. The council has created a program to help property owners fix up their walkways, and voters in 2017 passed a bond measure that was intended, in part, to improve sidewalks and other transportation infrastructure.
But a November 2020 audit found glaring problems with the city’s sidewalk stewardship efforts. City auditor Timothy O’Brien determined that it would take 50 years just for the city to complete inspections of sidewalks throughout the city. O’Brien also found the sidewalk improvement efforts were not coordinated with a separate program to make sure that sidewalk ramps complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Jill Locantore, the executive director of the Denver Streets Partnership, told Denverite this summer that advocates resorted to the ballot measure because they thought city officials hadn’t prioritized the issue.
“We’ve been waiting very patiently to see if the mayor or City Council would take action,” Locantore said. “But now the community has taken it into their own hands, gotten it on the ballot, and we’ll get to decide once and for all if sidewalks are truly a priority for our city.”
The ballot measure would charge property owners based on how much of their land runs along a street, and what type of street it faces. The measure would include discounts for owners in poorer neighborhoods. Proponents say that a typical family living in a single-family house would pay about $9 a month for the improvements. Of course, people with corner lots, or businesses located downtown, could pay more.
Marshall said the ballot measure also comes as Denver’s residents are expecting more robust sidewalk networks. The weather there is good enough that people walk and bike all year round, he said.
“People here want more walking and biking. They want it to be safe. The city has promised that, but they haven’t been delivering it as fast as people want, so that’s part of the frustration,” he said
Mike McGinn, a former Seattle mayor and now executive director of America Walks, a pedestrian advocacy group, said cities have often struggled to find money for sidewalks. Transportation departments say they don’t have enough money to maintain their streets, and sidewalks are treated as an afterthought. Plus, many parts of Seattle had been annexed after they were developed without sidewalks, and the city had no way to retroactively require them.
“We have an issue where state highways can’t take care of the roads and bridges, the interstate bridges are falling down, and all the new money has gone to new highways. Guess what’s at the very end of that list? The neighborhood that says, ‘Hey, can we get some sidewalk money?’” he said.
On top of that, city officials are very reluctant to take on property owners for not maintaining their sidewalks.
But McGinn said sidewalks have become a higher priority as walkability becomes a bigger concern nationwide.
“Even before the pandemic, you did see a rising appreciation of walkability in community life and local economies,” he said. “It was certainly reflected in rising real estate prices in walkable places. You can see it when employers locate to walkable downtown areas rather than in suburban campuses.”
Katherine Kraft, the president of the Placemakers Guild and a senior advisor to America Walks, said many cities have started paying attention to the condition of their sidewalks in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and to avoid lawsuits for violating it.
Kraft, who is also a board member of the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy, said sidewalks are a key component of regional networks, especially when they are connected to regional trails. But the inequities in the transportation system have left many neighborhoods without good sidewalks, crosswalks, street trees and other infrastructure that improves the residents’ quality of life, she said.
“It’s not sidewalks as the target. It’s improving walkability,” Kraft said. “It’s increasing active transportation. Sidewalks and connected sidewalk networks are a means for getting there.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.
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