Terrible condition of sidewalks confirmed

In 2010 Albany Strollers & Rollers completed a census of the worst sidewalk condition in each block in Albany. The census found 194 of Albany’s 600 blocks of sidewalk had significant damage (a vertical offset 1 inch or greater or a slope of 9% or greater) within the best two and a half foot width of sidewalk. This demonstrated that Albany’s current system of sidewalk repair was dysfunctional.

Image 3 (step)

Image 3 (step)

Like roads, sidewalks are public infrastructure on public land. However unlike roads, State law allows and Albany’s code requires adjacent property owners to identify needed repairs, contract for the repairs, secure a building permit for the repairs, manage the repairs, and pay for the repairs.

In some years, Albany has put up a bit of money to reimburse the adjacent property after the fact for half the cost of repair on a first come first serve basis. In the years this funding was available, it typically ran out within months, leaving no funding for the rest of the year. In recent years, there has been no such funding available.

Not surprisingly given the diversity of adjacent property owners, some were less able or willing to take on making these repairs, with the result that this public transportation system degraded to the lowest common denominator. In addition, the cost per repair of the current approach is much greater than would be an approach that aggregated multiple repairs into a single project.

With the census results in hand, AS&R set to work advocating for a better repair system. After five years of advocacy, there are some results. For the first time, in response to Council direction from almost three years ago, city staff have issued their own report. This confirms the general results of AS&R’s census: the sidewalks are in terrible condition. Staff’s inspection of the sidewalks identified 252 locations with “significant damage” using five criteria, of which vertical offset of 1 inch or greater is one. Staff has published a map of these locations.

Staff’s census of sidewalk conditions is commendable. This census was at the address rather than block level. In an early pilot, AS&R attempted an address-level census and found it would be untenable to complete as a volunteer effort. Meghan Mitman of Fehr & Peers, who was developing Albany’s Active Transportation Plan at the time, provided the saving suggestion to perform the census on a block-by-block basis. Even still, this took approximately 100 hours of volunteer time to complete. So one can only imagine how much time the address-level census by staff took.

All of this work has led the City to dedicate $150,000 per year for fixing sidewalks for the next two years and $100,000 per year for the following three (per the Capital Improvement Plan). There are some problems with the funding sources identified for the final two years, but the funding proposed for the first three years is sufficient to correct the backlog of worst problems identified by staff.

This leaves the need for a source of ongoing maintenance funding to prevent the sidewalks from deteriorating to this condition again. The Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) indicates $1.8 million of additional funding is needed for sidewalk repair over the next five years. There is no documentation substantiating the magnitude of this estimate. This is critical to securing ongoing maintenance funding.

The estimate seems high. The staff report proposes repairing the 40 highest priority locations in the next year for $150,000. This suggests all 252 locations could be repaired for $900,000, which is leaves $500,000 unfunded. This suggests $150,000 per year of additional revenue would be sufficient to both correct the remaining backlog of repairs in the next three years.

AS&R’s position is that this funding should be provided by a property tax. This would provide equity with Albany’s property tax to generate funds for road repair, which is currently around $60 per year ($120 as combined with a tax to support storm drain repair; taxes for any property in Alameda County can be accessed at https://www.acgov.org/propertytax/). A revenue mechanism report provided to the Council at its last meeting indicates a $25 per parcel average tax would generate $135,000 per year. It appears this would be sufficient combined with the already identified funding for the next three years to bring the sidewalks into good repair and then maintain in such condition thereafter (presuming the tax includes inflation adjustment).

AS&R will keep pressing the charge to bring the approach to sidewalk repair to equity with the approach to road repair, meaning publicly funded and staff managed in order to achieve uniformity of results and economy of scale. The City Council has indicated some inclination to support putting such a tax on the ballot. Detailed consideration of doing so hopefully will start with the Traffic and Safety Commission under its agenda item 6.B. during its meeting starting at 7:00 pm on Thursday, October 22nd, 2015, in the Council chambers. If you are inclined to support this effort, please send a message to cityhall@albanyca.org. As always, thank you for your support.


2 comments to Terrible condition of sidewalks confirmed

  • Judy Kerr

    I am absolutely opposed to a parcel tax until and unless it is demonstrated clearly that the transfer taxes the city currently receives are being used in the highest and best interest of the residents of Albany. I simply cannot believe that current real estate prices do not generate enough additional transfer tax to at least begin to address this important public safety matter.

  • Preston Jordan

    Hi Judy-

    Revenue from Albany’s property transfer tax goes to its general fund, which pays for basic services like police and fire protection. While it might be nice if sidewalk maintenance was regularly paid for out of the general fund, this has not happened for many years. The consequence is that the sidewalks are falling apart.

    All of our other types of infrastructure have dedicated funding sources. We pay for street maintenance through property taxes and sales taxes (the next maintenance project funded by this revenue is set to start in January). We pay for storm drain maintenance through property taxes (the next project funded by this revenue is set to co occur with the street maintenance project I believe). We pay for sewer maintenance through property taxes and utility bills (there are two maintenance projects occurring on Albany Hill right now using this funding). We pay for parks through property taxes (the new Pierce Street park is set to be built using this funding as soon as a final permit is secured from the Army Corps of Engineers). We pay for electrical and gas transmission systems through utility bills (undergrounding of electrical and communication utilities along Marin from San Pablo to Masonic will start early next year using this funding). There is no reason sidewalk maintenance should be held hostage pending some other funding method.

    Data from the City indicates this tax would only have to average around $25/parcel per year to significantly improve the condition of Albany’s sidewalks and keep them that way. This is in contrast to current parcel taxes of over $100 per parcel per year for street and storm drain maintenance and nearly $500 per parcel per year for sewer maintenance. So the cost is quite modest relative to the benefit.

    Take care.


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