Denver Deserves Sidewalks Frequently Asked Questions

20151105_144724Got questions before you sign the Denver Deserves Sidewalks petition?  We’ve got answers!

En Español: Denver Merece Aceras Preguntas Frecuentes 

1. How would a new funding mechanism for sidewalks work?  Would it be a mill levy added to property tax?  Would the funds be dedicated to sidewalk improvement? What about the TABOR requirement of getting voters to approve any new tax?

WalkDenver’s primary ask is that the City assume responsibility for building and repairing sidewalks, and establish a dedicated funding source for this purpose.  Through our research we have identified several different funding models that could work in Denver, outlined in this document.  We are not endorsing any one of these funding models, just asking that whatever funding mechanism the City puts in place, the dollars are dedicated for sidewalks and could not be allocated for some other purpose. The sidewalk fee proposal developed by Denver Public Works could be enacted through a city council ordinance, and would not require a TABOR election, because it would be a fee, not a property tax, dedicated for a specific purpose.  It would be similar to the current stormwater management fee that property owners pay, based on the square footage of impervious surface on the property, which is billed to property owners once a year, separate from property taxes.

2. How long would it take the city to build a complete sidewalk network?

With a dedicated funding source, a reasonable goal would be for every street in Denver to have a sidewalk on at least one side within 10-15 years.

3. Has WalkDenver talked to the City Council about this initiative? What has been their response?

WalkDenver staff met with all City Council members to discuss our proposed sidewalk policy. Everybody has been supportive but some expressed concerns such as: constituent support, legal exposure to potential lawsuits, and allocation of funds between districts. City Council formed a working group to explore funding models for sidewalk construction and repairs. There are three main categories of needed investment: repair of existing sidewalks, bringing narrow sidewalks to the current (5-foot width) standard, and building new sidewalks in the neighborhoods where currently there are no sidewalks.

4. What about Public Works? Are they supportive?

Yes, WalkDenver staff met with the Director of Public Works Jose Cornejo and his staff. They are supportive of WalkDenver’s sidewalk initiative.

5. Have other large cities similar to Denver established a funding source for sidewalks?

The cities WalkDenver is aware of that have established a dedicated funding source for sidewalks are smaller than Denver, but we don’t see any reason why the funding models wouldn’t successfully scale up to a city the size of Denver.  Some larger cities, including Boston, MA, routinely allocate funding for sidewalks out of their general fund.

6. What happened in Los Angeles?  I heard the City was sued over sidewalks.

Los Angeles took over responsibility for sidewalk repairs several decades ago, but did not establish a dedicated funding source for sidewalks.  Instead they relied on federal funding that eventually went away, and they stopped repairing the sidewalks.  This resulted in an ADA law suit, so the city is now on the hook for billions of dollars in repairs. WalkDenver’s position is that if Denver assumes responsibility for sidewalks, it should also establish a dedicated funding source, so they do not end up with an unfunded liability.  For more details, see this article in the LA Times.

7. Would a sidewalk fee apply to both residential and commercial property owners?

The fee proposal developed by Denver Public Works would apply to all property owners, including both commercial and residential.

8. How would the proposed sidewalk fee apply to corner properties?  

The fee proposal developed by Denver Public Works would be based only on the linear footage of the front of the property, not the side.  The funding would pay for the construction and repairs of sidewalks throughout the city, including both the front and side of properties.

9. What about historic neighborhoods that have flagstone sidewalks?  

The funding would cover the additional cost of repairing/resetting the flagstone in historic neighborhoods, which is typically more expensive than concrete sidewalks.

10. What about neighborhoods that have skinny (e.g., 18-inch-wide) “Hollywood” sidewalks or rollover curbs?

The funding would pay to bring these sidewalks up to current standards – first by expanding the sidewalk to be 5 feet wide, and in the long term by creating a tree lawn or other buffer between the sidewalk and the street.

11. What about neighborhoods that don’t have any sidewalks at all?

The funding would pay for the construction of new sidewalks.

12. Would the city have to take private property to build sidewalks where there are none currently, or to widen narrow sidewalks?

In most cases the public right-of-way extends beyond the street to include the area where a sidewalk would be built.  The property owner may have been maintaining this area as part of a lawn, in which case the size of the lawn may be reduced.  In some cases, a sidewalk could be built or widened by reducing the width of the roadway, which may be wider than necessary.

13. What about low-income property owners, for whom a sidewalk fee may be burdensome?  

The City could establish a waiver program for low-income property owners.

14. How would sidewalk construction and repairs be prioritized?

The City will be developing a Denver Moves Pedestrians plan in 2016, which could establish criteria for prioritizing pedestrian improvements throughout the City.  Each City Council district could also provide input on priorities within the district.

15. Will the City have to cut down trees where the roots have caused the sidewalk to buckle?  

With a dedicated funding source for sidewalks, the City could research best practices on materials and techniques for building and repairing sidewalks adjacent to trees, without harming the trees.

16. If the City takes over responsibility for sidewalks, could they then be sued by someone who trips and hurts themselves on a broken sidewalk?  

The City’s liability related to sidewalks would likely be similar to current liability related to roadways.  E.g., if someone suffers an injury or damage to their vehicle because of a pothole, they could potentially sue the City, but the person would have to demonstrate that the pothole had been reported to the City prior to the incident and the City had failed to fix the pothole in a timely manner.  The same standard would likely apply to sidewalks.

17. What about the City’s liability under the Americans with Disabilities Act?  

The City’s current vulnerability to an ADA lawsuit is unclear; WalkDenver is researching this.  If the City assumed responsibility for repairing sidewalks, but failed to actually do sidewalk repairs, they would be vulnerable to an ADA lawsuit, which happened in LA recently.  This is why WalkDenver is advocating for the City to establish a dedicated funding source for sidewalks, to avoid an unfunded mandate.

18. My neighborhood has good sidewalks; why should I have to pay for sidewalks in other neighborhoods?  

Sidewalks are an important part of the transportation network.  Everyone is a pedestrian at some point in their trip, regardless of whether they drive, take transit, bicycle, use carshare, bikeshare, etc.  Sidewalks are particularly important for the 30% of the population that doesn’t drive because of age, disability, or income.  Everyone benefits from a comprehensive, well-maintained network of sidewalks, just like we all benefit from a comprehensive, well-maintained network of roads.

19. Would the City take over responsibility for snow removal, sweeping leaves, or trimming bushes next to the sidewalk?  

This type of maintenance would remain the responsibility of the adjacent property owner.  Different strategies may be appropriate for ensuring this type of maintenance is done, such as the “Snow Buddies” program, where volunteers shovel the sidewalks for older adults or people with disabilities who are unable to do it themselves.

Ready to sign the petition?  Click here!

Still have questions? Contact WalkDenver’s Policy and Program Director Jill Locantore at jill.locantore@walkdenver.org.