A sidewalk nobody wants, paid for with money nobody has

You’re pushing back from the table, not really hungry, but there’s some pizza left. So, what should you do?

That’s easy — you stuff down a couple pieces so no one else gets the rest.

Recently, DeKalb County commissioners were asked whether the county should return $120,000 in federal money for a sidewalk that virtually nobody wants.

The answer: are you kidding? The sidewalk is getting built, public opinion be damned. If they don’t pour concrete in DeKalb, then the taxpayer money might go to Pittsburgh or Florida or, heaven forbid, it may not get spent at all. But don’t worry, Uncle Sam can borrow more.

“This is a unique opportunity for us to put in sidewalks with other people’s money,” Commissioner Stan Watson said during the meeting last month to approve the project. “To send back money is unconscionable.”

Commissioner Nancy Jester, who represents that district and is new to all this, was the lone vote to send the money back. This week she commented on the unusual situation: “The neighborhood is saying, ‘Stop. Don’t spend the money on us.’ But the county couldn’t say no to this. They’re saying, ‘This is free money.’ But it’s not free money. It’s federal money and it should go back. It could have gone back into the program and bettered another community.”

Then she added, “But the bureaucrats will say, ‘We put in an asset.’”

Residents of the Evansdale Community near Northlake are calling that future asset the Sidewalk to Nowhere. The project even has its own opposition Facebook page because, well, that’s how things roll these days.

Actually, it is a Sidewalk to Somewhere: it would run three short blocks from Evans Woods Drive to Whitby Drive, perhaps 1,000 feet of a 5-foot-wide strip. And it's not far from Evansdale Elementary School.

It’s admittedly a conundrum. Usually neighborhoods clamor for sidewalks because everybody these days is all about walkability or putting on tight pants and jumping on bikes. But more than 70 percent of residents here opposed this plan, according to a survey taken at a meeting two months ago.

I drove to the leafy neighborhood outside of I-285, one built in the 1960s and 1970s and filled with streets called Circle, Drive, Lane, Trail and Court — anything but Street or Road.

I spoke with a group of residents, almost all of whom have advanced degrees in something. In fact, there was a civil engineer, an aeronautical engineer and an engineer of bio-something or other. All recited a litany of complaints why the sidewalk is unneeded — grading, loss of trees, the lack of a retaining wall, loss of property for six households, etc. etc.

The residents say hardly any kids — or anyone for that matter — traverse that stretch of road on foot. They say nobody ever asked them about the need, or the wisdom, about putting a sidewalk there. In fact, they knew nothing about it until some construction guys showed up this spring with measurement tools.

“We’ll have the only sidewalk around for miles,” said Barry Goodno, the civil engineer of the bunch and a neighbor there for 36 years. The grant will also build another sidewalk a few blocks to the north, one that almost all residents support.

Commissioners, Goodno said, were given misinformation by a county engineer who explained the project to them. “They said the school bus goes up that street with 57 students. But she failed to mention only a few of them get off. There’s an attitude of (county) planning and (Georgia) DOT that ‘we know best for you.’”

Nester Young, a parent who lives nearby and has a child at the school, summed up the matter: “We don’t feel it’s necessary. And it’s a waste of money.”

The main problem that residents have is that the grant money is being spent to solve the wrong problem. The neighborhood has gotten along for decades with nary a sidewalk. In fact, families used to have four, five and six kids and they walked and biked to the school. Now families stop at 2.1 kids and moms enshroud them in bubble wrap before driving them to school.

Residents argue the real danger is two intersections near the school. And, in fact, the original group that pushed for grant money five years ago first asked for raised intersections, ladder crosswalks (the noticeable striping pattern on the pavement) and pedestrian crossing lights.

Sidewalks were low on the ask-list, although the 2010 application did say that Evans Dale Drive is “fairly heavily traveled by cars” that are “often evidently in a hurry.” (But, then again, who isn’t in Atlanta?)

The application, I am told, was put together by school officials with input from some local residents, although no one really seems to know who they were. Five years is like two or three PTAs ago.

The group showing me the proposed sidewalk stopped to point out a grouping of potholes and deep crevices on Evans Dale Drive that has, according to the varying levels and hues of asphalt, been patched seven or eight times.

“They ought to fix that first,” said one of the residents.

But, that comes from another funding source, money from the county. Although it would be nice to get somebody else’s money to fix it.