Outpaced: Pedestrian projects go unfunded

The truth about Asheville’s pedestrian thoroughfares hit Susan Sparboe hard: Her street (and most others) won’t be getting sidewalks anytime soon.

“We’ve got lots of senior citizens and families with young children walking around our street,” said Sparboe, representing the Fairfax Avenue Neighborhood Association, at a City Council meeting last month. “It would be great to get a sidewalk, for safety reasons. What are our chances?”

“Doubtful,” replied Public Works Director Mark Combs. The frank comment garnered a few laughs from city officials, but didn’t begin to convey the tremendous backlog of sidewalk requests, curb cuts, and pedestrian hazards waiting for attention. “We have $38 million in need for pedestrian thoroughfares and sidewalk connectors,” Combs told Sparboe, “and we get $300,000 a year for maintenance.”

As outlined in the Asheville Pedestrian Thoroughfare Plan, adopted last May, some 572 wheelchair ramps — required since 1990 by the Americans with Disabilities Act — and 630 pedestrian crossings are awaiting installation. And then there are the 108 miles of needed new sidewalks, plus another 26.5 miles of deteriorated sidewalks that need rebuilding.

Compounding the sidewalk problem are obstacles (such as fire hydrants, parking meters and signs, utility poles, mailboxes, etc.) that can endanger the blind and hinder the disabled and agile alike. The city has identified 188 such obstacles, slated for removal. (The city requires at least 48 inches of open passage on sidewalks.)

In average years, the cash-strapped City Council appropriates up to $300,000 for sidewalk improvements out of general tax revenues. That’s enough to build about two miles of new sidewalks per year, by city estimates; at that rate, it would take 54 years just to construct the new ones — forget about everything else. But federal mandates to make existing sidewalks and curbs ADA-compliant take precedence over requests for new ones, anyway — and federal funding for those ADA-required modifications hasn’t been pouring in, either. So how can Asheville finance the desired projects?

“We need to be creative,” says Oliver Gajda, the city’s new pedestrian-and-bicycle coordinator. “It’s fiscally constraining, so it means we have to look for other sources.” First, he says, Public Works will go after “the low-hanging fruit.”

Word of the first harvest arrived this month: The N.C. Department of Transportation will contribute $429,134 to help complete the city’s Urban Trail. The 1.67-mile walkway snakes among the ghosts of Asheville’s past — encompassing some 54 bad curb cuts, about as many crosswalks, and numerous sidewalk obstacles, en route. Fixing those pesky pedestrian hazards, says Gajda, will cost about $170,000; the remainder of the money will be used for landscaping, street lighting, and providing benches, trash receptacles and thematic markers.

Besides seeking further DOT transportation-enhancement moneys, Gajda says the city will be looking at some local initiatives, such as impact fees for new development, negotiating with utility companies to remove sidewalk obstacles, and a possible series of bond referendums (though the latter remains a touchy subject, especially in light of last year’s failed parks-and-recreation bond referendum).

“We did float a bond [issue] in the ’80s, and that left a bad taste in people’s mouths,” concedes Gajda adding, “Every time I ask about that, people just grumble.” The $17 million worth of bonds — which won’t be paid off for another eight years — did fund major sidewalk construction on Wall Street, Patton Avenue and Broadway, but fell well short of meeting the city’s overall pedestrian needs. “The cost estimates weren’t well thought out,” he surmises; “They’re more in line now.”

And another bond issue still seems the most obvious way to raise the $38 million needed to bring Asheville’s walkways up to snuff.

“That would take strong leadership from our elected officials — to have the political courage, and for people to have the willingness to pay for another bond [issue],” Gajda observes. “We may be ready. I’d like to see us at least try for it.”

At the same time, however, Gajda pushes hard to fit these expenditures within the bigger picture: the need to embrace alternative modes of transportation. He is the pedestrian-and-bicycle coordinator, after all — and Asheville, he notes, “is a very walkable city.”

“We need to choose other modes of travel — like walking, bus rides, biking. I walk or ride a bike wherever I go. I’m not some planner living out in the county,” says the 28-year-old, who rents an apartment in Montford and doesn’t own a car. “We’ve been planning for the automobile for 50 years. Hopefully, it won’t take us that long to get back.”

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