City Council Candidate Question 5: Sidewalks

5. Sidewalks and roads are public infrastructure on public land. Roads are maintained by the public, in part through a parcel tax, while sidewalks are expected to be maintained by private property owners. AS&R’s 2011 sidewalk census (http://www.albanystrollroll.org/current-projects/sidewalk-census/) shows that many of our sidewalks are impassable or hazardous to many users. How would you address this problem?

[Sheri Spellwoman] As your sidewalk census shows, our current system is not working to keep sidewalks safe and usable. It seems the three main issues are: uneven sidewalks primarily due to tree roots; narrowing of sidewalks primarily due to overgrown vegetation; and blocked sidewalks primarily due to illegally parked cars. These issues deserve attention. There are state and city laws that address these issues, but are not enforced. I have stated above how important I believe the walkability is to the health and livability of our city. It is one of the factors that makes our city wonderful. Maintaining and improving our sidewalks is very important and I am pleased the Traffic and Safety Commission plans to “explore sidewalk conditions” next year. I would also advocate for the appropriate government bodies to enforce the laws and city codes that relate to our sidewalks. If these efforts are not effective, the maintenance responsibility for sidewalks may need to be changed from private property owners to the City.

[Pete Maass] Difficult one. Right now it seems that sidewalks get repaired when a homeowner wants to do a large project, which then triggers a requirement to repair the sidewalk in front of the house. The problem right now is that very few projects like this are happening and even in the best of times this is a piecemeal approach. Going to the voters for a parcel tax to fund sidewalk repair is probably a political non-starter. Grant funds seem to be paying for more and more city expenses, so I presume this is a possibility. In the “out there”/ creative realm, perhaps we could have an annual competition, where property owners would compete for most artistically done sidewalk (allowing color or other things to me added to the mix). Make the Grand prize the cost of the repairs and a thousand dollars.

[Peggy Thomsen] Under state law sidewalks are the responsibility of the homeowner. I would like the city to research the possibility of providing an umbrella program whereby the city would contract with a firm, and individuals could benefit from the larger pool to reduce the costs of repair.

[Nick Pilch] I support the city taking back responsibility for the maintenance of sidewalks. The Tree Task Force of the Parks and Recreation Commission produced a new list of street trees suitable for Albany, one criteria for the selection of which is that the roots not push up sidewalks or the street. Planting trees from this list, as older trees die or are taken out, will help stop many instances of damage. Should Measure B1 pass, this will be an opportunity for the city to start the work of repairing the most heavily trafficked and most damaged sidewalks little by little. Finally, property owners should be put on notice for vegetation incursion into the sidewalks with the stipulation that the city will trim vegetation at will should the property owner not attend to it.

[Michael Barnes] Since much of the damage to sidewalks comes from city-owned trees (or at least trees that are city responsibility), the city needs to be more proactive in finding a solution to the poor state of repair of our sidewalks. It is true that sidewalks are the property owner’s responsibility, but a bad sidewalk can result in a dangerous fall for a kid on a razor scooter (who may have forgotten their helmet) or for an elder person at risk of a hip fracture. The incentives just aren’t in place for either homeowners or the city to internalize these costs.
Something needs to be done, I am not sure what. More money would help, it always does, but a program to systematically replace big sections of sidewalks would be best. There certainly are economies of scale when it comes to pouring concrete, but our current sidewalk policies discourage that solution.

[Tod Abbott] I think the health of the sidewalks is too important to too many of the city’s goals to leave it completely to property owners. The city needs to take an active role in improving the quality of the sidewalks.
Of course the current budget situation does not make it easy to take this on. We will have to commit the resources needed to submit applications for the various funding opportunities that are available — where possible, partnering with neighboring cities to share the workload and present a “regional” proposal.
Other options would be to coordinate repair pools or to negotiate a bulk contract to bring down the costs of repair. If we do some outreach to homeowners and are able to get the cost down to something manageable, we can make a dent in the problem.
Finally, I’ve been working with others in the business community on a plan that could generate funding for projects that include sidewalk repair and maintenance in the commercial districts.

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