“People who say we shouldn’t build sidewalks for environmental reasons are wrong!” said Mayor Bruce Williams. The city should proceed with new sidewalk designing, he said.
He also said the city should pour half a million dollars a year into “retrofitting” existing sidewalks to meet federal government standards. The money would come from speed camera revenues.
The council was considering how much speed camera revenue to spend on ADA compliance. So, they were talking about sidewalks in general Feb. 28, because the less they spend on ADA compliance the more money there is for new sidewalks on blocks where there are none. Or the funds could be spent on something else to do with public safety.
ADA is the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal law that sets public construction standards so people with disabilities – i.e. in wheelchairs – have access to the same things those of you not (yet) in wheelchairs do.
No Neutral Ground
ALL of this is controversial. Not all the council agrees that as much as $500,000 should be spent yearly. And they disagree on which ward should get retrofitted or get new sidewalks first.
Furthermore, every sidewalk project has its detractors and supporters. Some residents don’t want a new sidewalk because it will take a big piece of their yard – along with their plantings and fences. Some environmentalists object to tree damage and loss, loss of habitat, and the increase in storm water runoff. On the other side, people in wheelchairs want to be able to get around town safely. Parents want a safe place to push a baby buggy, and they don’t want their school-aged children to have to walk in the street.
It was some environmentalists, as we reported in our “Speeding on the Sidewalk” post Feb. 25, who got the council to suspend all sidewalk projects in January. The environmentalists charged that city sidewalk building is based on a too-narrow restriction on speed camera revenue spending. That money could be spent on a wider range of public safety projects – less environmentally damaging projects – they said.
So, the council suspended all sidewalk projects in January and started reviewing all things sidewalkish. This includes reviewing how speed camera funds could be spent and ADA compliance requirements.
Councilmembers were no longer saying, as some did at the prior meeting, that the yearly ADA compliance budget should be a minimal amount. That was before they and the city manager looked into how the ADA felt about minimal amounts.
The city manager had a cautionary tale about Fairfax County, which got taken to court and spanked by ADA. Councilmember Colleen Clay worried that Takoma Park could get in trouble for noncompliant sidewalks worked on in the last 20 years. Those should be brought up to standards before the ADA notices the city ignored them, she said.
Clay also said that the ADA looks at how much was spent previously to bring walks up to code, then expects at least that much to be spent in the following years. Last year, the city spent about half a million dollars to complete one fifth of the work required to bring all of the city’s sidewalks into compliance.
Reuben Snipper said that lack of funds is no excuse as far as the feds are concerned. In cases that go to court, he said, they use a formula – a percentage of the jurisdiction’s budget, a figure far higher that what the city has spent so far.
So, all agreed that the city should make a good faith effort to retrofit its sidewalks. However, even though contractors were standing by to begin work this month, they passed on retrofits scheduled to begin this month – sidewalks in Old Town and Hodges Heights. They decided the $526,000 already spent on ADA compliance was enough for this year.
Pity the person in the middle of all the sidewalk controversies! That person is the public works director Daryl Braithwaite.
She’s the one who has to attend community meetings to present proposed sidewalk plans. In the early stages, residents complain that the plans are too nebulous to comment on. In the later stages when the plans start to get more set, residents complain they are being rammed down their throats. Then there are the strongly pro- and anti-sidewalk partisans who cast her as the villain.
She wants OUT of that role, please, she told the council. The sidewalk planning process needs to be improved, she said.
How speed-camera funds can be spent is governed by state law. The law changed a couple of years ago, and some have charged that the city continued restricting those funds for infrastructure projects, including sidewalks. There has been much angst about this. One councilmember even publicly apologized for missing the change.
This confused Your Gilbert, because as an observer of most council meetings, we saw events to the contrary. When the city budget was being planned in Oct. 2009, we noted in this column how the city manager cleverly applied speed camera funds, filling a large revenue gap. Using a broad definition of “public safety” she applied those funds to non-infrastructure costs.
City manager Barbara Matthews recently confirmed that the city did not restrict the funds to infrastructure /sidewalk projects at that time. Her budget applied speed camera revenues to such things as traffic calming, the salary of a traffic safety officer, and software that helped issue traffic tickets.
Matthews said the law did change two years ago, but not by much. It used to say that revenues had to be spent on things related to public safety. In 2009, the state dropped the word “related.” This allowed for a broader use of the funds, said Matthews.