As a plan to have property owners maintain, repair and replace sections of sidewalk that abut their properties moves forward, alternative solutions may be coming into sharper focus.
Though state law does say sidewalks are the property owner’s responsibility, it doesn’t stop cities from opting to create and fund their own maintenance programs. The League of Kansas Municipalities doesn’t keep track of how many cities have taken that option, but one doesn’t have to travel far to find exceptions to the rule.
The City of Topeka, for instance, has a 50/50 sidewalk repair program. Residential property owners with out-of-compliance sidewalks can apply for the program, and the city will split the cost of the repairs. In Lenexa, sidewalks are treated like other public infrastructure and repaired with city funds when any level of street maintenance is done or when a complaint is received.
Lawrence Mayor Mike Amyx said despite the state law that says sidewalks are the responsibility of individual property owners, he agrees that they are a public asset.
“That is the law we have right now, that it’s the responsibility of the property owner,” Amyx said. “But let’s be fair about it; we all use the sidewalks, right? It’s something that the person who is right there in front may or may not (use).”
Lawrence does have money allocated for some sidewalk repair, spending approximately $100,000 annually from street maintenance funds on repairing sidewalks and $60,000 repairing sidewalk ramps, according to city staff's recommended sidewalk plan. But there are no city funds allocated to cover the $6.1 million of repairs needed for sidewalks on residential property, and residents cannot opt out of repairs by just removing their concrete, brick or stone sidewalk, according to City Attorney Toni Wheeler.
Apart from sending letters to property owners when a complaint is received, the city has not enforced its standing ordinance requiring that they maintain their sidewalks. However, putting procedures and staff in place to enforce the ordinance is part of an implementation plan created by city staff, which was presented to city commissioners Oct. 18.
Breaking down the costs
The plan was prompted by the final report of the Pedestrian-Bicycle Issues Task Force, which recommended that the city establish a sidewalk maintenance program by 2017 with a plan to bring sidewalks and ramps to code by 2030. The city estimates there is approximately $9.4 million in sidewalk deficiencies in the city, made up of about $6.1 million in sidewalk repairs and $3.3 million in sidewalk ramps required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
To cover the $6.1 million of repairs over a 13-year period, or by 2030 as the task forced suggests, would be about $470,000 per year. The city is funding repairs to ramps, the area where the sidewalk meets the street. If ramp repairs were included, it would cost about $723,000 per year. For comparison, the city has budgeted $886,000 in 2017 for streetlights.
More than a third of the approximately 40,000 lots in the city have adjacent sidewalks that are out of compliance, according to David Cronin, city engineer and task force liaison. Cronin said that some neighborhoods have no sidewalks, while others have sidewalks on one or both sides of the street. He said if the city were to contribute funds for their repair, that revenue would have to be in addition to the existing funding for sidewalks.
“Sidewalk maintenance is only a small part of the discussion,” Cronin said. “A lot of it is infrastructure for bicycles and new sidewalks, and that doesn’t cover the maintenance aspect.”
City commissioners have expressed some interest in a deferral and/or grant program to cover repairs, but details for such proposals weren’t included in the recommendation recently made by city staff. Amyx said infrastructure, including sidewalks, is one of the city’s top priorities, and that paying for sidewalk maintenance would probably take a combination of funding sources.
The program in Lenexa also takes that approach. Sidewalk repair is part of Lenexa’s Pavement Management Program, which is funded through three sources: sales tax (53 percent), gas tax (28 percent) and general fund (19 percent), according to Denise Rendina, Lenexa communications manager.
The city of Topeka allots $100,000 annually for its 50/50 program, according to Aly Van Dyke, a spokeswoman for the city. Van Dyke said the program is currently funded through a half-cent citywide sales tax.
As for Lawrence, Cronin and Amyx both brought up the city’s 0.3 percent infrastructure sales tax, which will expire in 2019. If voters agree to renew that tax, the task force is recommending dedicating .05 percent of it to improve sidewalk infrastructure, including repairs, closing gaps throughout the city, and finishing and adding connectors to the Lawrence Loop. That .05 percent would create an additional $850,000 per year, according to the city plan.
Amyx said he thinks dedicating a portion of the infrastructure sales tax is “a real possibility.”
“Obviously, we’re going to put it off for a year, but I think that is a very important question to ask in the very beginning (of discussion on the tax),” Amyx said. “…Here’s the deal: We’re going to need a funding source to take care of it, and, quite honestly, maybe that’s one way to really look at it.”
Amyx said another idea could be to set up benefit districts for high-priority areas of the city, and look at using the federal Community Development Block Grant Program to help offset costs for low to moderate income individuals. Amyx emphasized that is just one option to consider.
“If we can do something like via the benefit district, where the payback is over a 10-year period, maybe that is a possibility,” Amyx said. “It’s a more affordable way to cover the cost and end up with a product that is very good and something that everybody can enjoy. But here again, it’s just one idea.”
The city’s implementation plan will go to the newly created Transportation Commission for review, which will also make recommendations. Both sets of recommendations will return to the City Commission at an upcoming meeting for further review.