The city of Lawrence needs a sidewalk strategy. A proposal to use federal Community Development Block Grant funding to build some new sidewalks and repair some others barely scratches the surface of - and could even add to - the problem.
The city's Public Works Department is seeking CDBG funds to build new sidewalks in areas where they are needed for pedestrian safety and convenience. The proposed sidewalks on 15th Street between Haskell Avenue and Harper Street, on Haskell Avenue between 19th and 23rd streets and on North Seventh Street in North Lawrence would fill gaps in sidewalks to bus stops, parks, a school, and several social service agencies.
If the city is to be pedestrian-friendly, officials reason, these sidewalks are necessary. However, although the CDBG funds would finance construction of the sidewalks, their maintenance would be the responsibility of the people on whose property they are built.
The new sidewalks probably won't require any maintenance for some time, but many sidewalks in the older areas of Lawrence already are in serious disrepair. To try to deal with some of the worst spots, the Public Works proposal also seeks about $50,000 for small sidewalk repairs in the east Lawrence and Pinckney neighborhoods. These are repairs that should be the responsibility of the property owners, but city officials see little chance that the low-income property owners ever will be able to afford those repairs.
Having the city make those repairs, however, opens a whole new can of worms. If the city is willing to make those repairs, why shouldn't it repair sidewalks for other low-income property owners?
City commissioners are understandably wary of taking on residential sidewalk repairs because it will be hard to draw the line. Their dilemma suggests that the city needs a far better strategy to deal with sidewalk maintenance.
At the very least, the city should try to ease the burden on individual property owners by pooling multiple sidewalk projects and seeking bids that should be lower than what an individual would pay. The cost of the sidewalk then could be paid over time as a special assessment.
An even better solution would be to form benefit districts in which entire city blocks share the cost of sidewalk maintenance. On streets with sidewalks on just one side, the cost of maintaining or replacing that sidewalk should be shared by residents on both sides of the street. They all use the sidewalk; it is a benefit to all and should be a shared responsibility. The people with sidewalks on their property already are responsible for snow removal; the least the rest of the neighborhood can do is share the maintenance costs.
Filling some troublesome gaps in city sidewalks might be a good use of CDBG funds, but sidewalk maintenance requires a much more comprehensive approach that is fair to property owners throughout the city.