Sidewalk repair policy busted

If you’re like me, you’ve probably tripped on a broken or uneven sidewalk in Atlanta. It’s not surprising, since Atlanta has an estimated $152 million backlog of broken sidewalks. The city’s sidewalk ordinance, which requires property owners to pay for sidewalk repairs adjacent to their property, is a big part of the problem.

Politically unpopular, the law went unenforced for decades. Yet recently, lawsuits and settlements with injured pedestrians cost the city over $4 million. Wake up Atlanta; we can’t keep kicking maintenance down the road.

Last year, the Department of Public Works sent letters to scores of people who own property next to broken sidewalks. Two options: pay up – or hire a contractor. The letters angered property owners and elected officials. In response, Public Works backed off enforcing the ordinance in residential areas.

The city is now considering an ordinance that significantly increases costs to property owners. Currently, people who ask the city to repair sidewalks pay $3.90 per square foot, which covers the cost of materials. The proposed ordinance increases that cost to $10.28 per square foot, which also covers labor. This is a band aid that will not stick.

If approved, the 164 percent increase raises the average cost per property owner to over $4,000. Who would volunteer to pay that? It’s unlikely that elected officials will allow Public Works to force property owners to pay for sidewalk repairs.

Atlanta plans to hold a bond referendum next year. If approved, about $250 million will be allocated to maintain bridges, roads, sidewalks, traffic signals and other infrastructure. Bond money is a terrific and much-needed way to jump start repairs.

Paid off over 25 years, however, bond revenue is not a sustainable way to cover ongoing maintenance needs like sidewalks. The proposed amount for sidewalk repairs is insufficient even to keep up with ongoing decay.

Atlanta needs to take a more holistic approach to policy reform. The city’s reluctance to force property owners to pay for repairs results in a large gap between policy and reality. It’s time to move on from a policy that does not work.

People in Atlanta deserve better. Sidewalks are shared resources, just like streets. And like street resurfacing and pothole repair, sidewalk maintenance should be paid for by all taxpayers, not just those who own property next to a broken sidewalk.

More and more cities are turning to innovative funding solutions. The program Ithaca, N.Y. launched this year is excellent. It treats sidewalks as essential public assets. It also reduces administrative expenses, charges less to owners of “low-foot-traffic” lots, and makes costs and revenue predictable.

Washington, D.C.; Charlotte, N.C.; Ann Arbor, Mich., and many other cities allocate tax dollars to pay for sidewalk repairs. Most jurisdictions in the Atlanta region do so as well; Decatur, Roswell and Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties are just a few examples.

It’s clear that residents, workers and visitors want a more walkable Atlanta. Please let your City Council representatives know that now is the time to act. Sidewalk conditions will improve dramatically when city officials take responsibility for funding sidewalk funding repairs.

Sally Flocks is president and CEO of PEDS, a pedestrian safety advocacy group.

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