Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sidewalk Chic - Sexy and Shovel Ready

Sunday night we ran a post about the real lack of progressive "shovel ready" transportation projects here in Connecticut. To recap, a "shovel ready" project is one where the plans are at a point where the project could begin construction almost immediately if only money were available to do so. The first round of the federal stimulus that Obama is planning, is aimed at these types of projects. Sunday night, we chastised the state for lagging behind the rest of the country and not having enough "shovel ready" projects on hand.

Well, we apologize. Along with officials from state agencies and towns all across Connecticut, we failed to see a real opportunity in this upcoming stimulus bill. It turns out we have a whole bunch of transportation projects that are "fired up and ready to go". What are they? Glorious high-speed rail plans? A bicycle superhighway? A new streetcar system? No.

A sidewalk, lots of sidewalks to be exact. That's right, the old sidewalk, the ugly redheaded stepchild of transportation infrastructure. You might wonder, and rightfully so, how building sidewalks could help out the economy. An explanation:

Discovered in a post at The Naked City, Michael Ronkin of Designing Streets for Pedestrians and Bicyclists LLC in Salem, Oregon makes a fantastic case for sidewalk construction in a short but sweet memo to President-Elect Barack Obama. Ronkin makes a convincing argument for sidewalks as a powerful economic stimulus for towns and cities.

Here it is:

You have heard from many about repairing bridges and highways. You have been receiving many 'shovel-ready' wish lists of projects. Big highway projects are rarely shovel-ready; there will always be legitimate environmental and political hurdles to overcome, requiring robust public debate.

However, there are many small-scale projects that require little or no red tape, provide tremendous benefit/cost, and create the greatest number of local jobs per dollar spent: sidewalk repair, infill and construction, and bringing existing sidewalks up to ADA compliance. Sidewalk projects provide many economic benefits for communities large and small:
* Most of the sidewalk cost is labor (60-80%);
* The labor force is usually local; the bulk of the materials (sand and
gravel) can be found locally too;
* The wages are living wages, but not too high for financially strapped communities;
* The minimal amount of design needed can be done in-house or by small local engineering firms.
* Local small contractors can perform the work;
* This provides work for small contractors hurt by the housing downturn, as they are doing less small concrete work for house foundations, driveways etc.;
* These are opportunities to make good use of existing incentive programs such as Emerging Small Businesses, Disadvantaged Business Enterprises, Minority-Owned Businesses;
* But most important are the positive results for the community:
* Sidewalks improve property values, make it easier to walk for short local trips, reduce municipal liability for trip and fall injuries, and help make the transportation system accessible to all pedestrians, including those the Americans with Disabilities Act was intended to help bring into the mainstream.

The backlog of sidewalk infill and repair is huge in most cities. When I worked as Pedestrian and Bicycle Program Manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation, I managed a small grant program (approximately $3,000,000/year statewide) that funded sidewalk infill projects. Every year we had to turn away many worthy applicants, as the requests exceeded available funds at a 5:1 ratio.

This memo is absolutely brilliant in its simplicity and practicality. Plenty of towns and cities across this state have incomplete sidewalk networks, which can make walking unsafe and uncomfortable. Many towns, in an effort to cut costs, rely on developers to build their sidewalks. When a development comes in, it is required to construct a sidewalk along the frontage of the property. Of course, this leads to a "Swiss cheese sidewalk network" full of holes that will take decades to fill in, as the town patiently waits for each and every property to be developed or redeveloped. And of course no developer wants to build a sidewalk to nowhere. It's like building a bridge to nowhere, but without government money.

The point is, these towns and cities have the sidewalk plans on the books. They have the specs for the construction of new sidewalks, the available right-of-way, and the public works staff to get it built. They just don't have the money.

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