Time by now may have pulverized them into gravel. Or they’re sunken and overgrown with grass. Others are buckled like mountain ranges by the methodical brutality of tree roots.
Kansas City has 4,092 miles of sidewalks — you’d walk as far as Anchorage, Alaska, and 500 miles beyond if you paced them all — and it’s not hard to find bad stretches.
On your block or in front of your house, the saga of Kansas City’s sidewalk woes begins with the city’s longstanding repair process: If a sidewalk needs to be replaced, property owners get stuck with the bill — usually a $3,000 to $4,000 hit. And that discourages necessary repairs.
“This backlog (of sidewalk maintenance) is becoming this black hole,” said Tiffany Moore, an Armour Hills Homes Association member.
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For residents harboring a bad sidewalk, the coming April 4 election on a proposed package of $800 million in general obligation bonds offers hope for a reprieve.
The city would dedicate $150 million to sidewalks over the next 20 years and pick up those residential tabs — including for people already assessed and on payment plans. That’s a bit of government amnesty because the cost of the program would be spread across all property owners in the form of a mild property tax increase, which, for the sidewalks portion, amounts to a few dollars a year.
The task ahead confronts a reality of those 4,000 miles of sidewalks in a city of sizable geographic size but low in population — and taxpayer — density.
The city typically only checks on about 235 miles of sidewalks a year — about 6 percent — responding to calls, said Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner, who leads a work group devising a sidewalks plan.
And repairs are funded by the roughly $2.5 million it has on hand each year from the fees paid by residents.
It can’t keep up, as 15-year-old Kearra Rentie could tell, whom we found walking one of those worst-of-the-worst sidewalks.
She approached from the top of the block near Troost Elementary School on 59th Street, descending south along Forest Avenue.
Her eyes mostly watched the smartphone in her hand, but her divided attention was obvious by the zigzag route she made sidestepping the hazards at her feet.
“It’s really bumpy, and it’s hard to walk on,” the University Academy student said, “especially in difficult weather situations. … I’ll have to go to the other side of the street or into the street.
“A better sidewalk,” she said, “would make it easier for people to get out and walk around and be active — and safe.”
A costly system
Kansas City isn’t unique in its system of charging property owners over sidewalks. Other cities also struggle with a setup that can actually pit neighbor against neighbor.
“A lot of people who call 311 (the city’s action line) believe that what they’re doing is telling the city about a needed repair,” Moore said.
“They don’t know that they’re turning in their neighbors,” she said, who likely want to avoid paying for a new sidewalk out of their own pocket for as long as they can. “It’s not like turning in a pothole.”
What we have, said Eric Bunch of BikeWalkKC, is “a culture of fear” where, instead of talking about sidewalks, neighbors with problems are “avoiding the topic altogether.”
Kansas City’s situation in many areas is further complicated by the generous City Beautiful movement championed more than a century ago by pioneering city planner George Kessler.
The parks and boulevards vision to transform Kansas City’s cowtown image included a lot of tree planting in lawns between curbs and sidewalks. Many of those trees have grown quite stately and destructive.
One of the early encounters that Wagner remembers as a council member was the earful he got from a part-time Walgreens worker well past retirement age who had been hit with one of those sidewalk repair bills.
She understood the damage was done to her sidewalk. “But,” she told her city representative, “your tree caused it.”
“We needed to figure out how to do sidewalks better,” Wagner said.
The sidewalks work group has been looking at other cities as well, and is taking ideas from Austin, Texas; Arlington, Va.; Charlotte, N.C.; and others that have taken on responsibility for much of their sidewalk maintenance.
So now comes the bond issue.
The City Council’s decision to devote $150 million of the $800 million to sidewalks represents a compromise for some members like Wagner who hoped for $200 million or more.
Roads and bridges would get $450 million. Another $150 million would go to flood control. The other $50 million would be for a new animal shelter and public building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The full $800 million package, if passed, would mean an $8-a-year property tax increase in the first year for the owner of a $140,000 home and $15,000 car. That increase would accumulate each year, reaching an annual cost of $160 at the end of the 20 years. The sidewalks portion of that would be $1.50 to $30.
But the next question is: How will the city prioritize and organize the work equitably for all? In other words — whose sidewalk problems get fixed first?
The key, Wagner said, is that before the city can launch a comprehensive repair program, it must launch a “strategic inspection” program.
A priority matrix would grade sidewalk locations on characteristics including proximity to key sites like schools, grocery stores, public transit, libraries, medical centers and community centers.
It would likely consider population density and employment density.
The City Council would have to agree on how many points to assign the different characteristics, and then the city would have a formula to feed into a city map.
“It would kick out the first places to look at,” Wagner said.
Most of the first two years, while the citywide inspection is underway, would be spent catching up on the backlog of work that had been called in. There is about $6 million worth of work on the books right now, Wagner said. And more calls would likely come once the onus of city assessments on property owners is gone.
Then the city would have about $7.5 million a year to go to work systematically, starting with repairs in high-priority blocks.
The city will have to “show all of its work” in the priority process, said Bunch, whose group, BikeWalkKC, along with others like the Whole Person disability rights group, have joined in the research and planning. “Because many people don’t have faith that transportation projects have ever had a public process.”
Others, including some City Council members, wonder if putting $150 million straight into sidewalks is the most effective way to go in city revival.
“We need something more catalytic than curbs and sidewalks,” said Clinton Adams, an attorney in the city’s 3rd District and a former Public Improvements Advisory Committee member.
Some sidewalk repair should be part of the picture, he said, but as a part of more expansive makeovers at spots in the city that need to be beautified with “streetscapes” that would include landscaping and ornamental lighting. That would go further “to improve the aesthetics in an area,” he said.
The proposal looks “amorphous and vague,” Adams said, which is a problem for many residents east of Troost Avenue who he said will expect that “we’ll be the last ones to get it.”
Ultimately, the City Council agreed on how it wanted the $800 million bond package split, sending it to the ballot April 4 with a 13-0 vote. But it was differences over sidewalk investments that had most threatened to bog the measure down.
The $150 million agreement for sidewalks may seem pared down, City Councilman Quinton Lucas said, but the council needed to specify an amount that would be palatable to voters since many details on how the city will carry out the work will have to be determined.
“Clearly there is more than $150 million in work that needs to be done,” Lucas said. But this amount will cover at least the spot repairs, taking that burden off homeowners, and still open opportunities to address other sidewalk needs.
“This is a responsible amount,” Lucas said, “that’s not just throwing money in a giant pot.”
Areas without sidewalks
Charles and Susan Christesson’s experience reveals another significant sidewalk burden weighing on the city — the lack of them.
Charles Christesson said that as they walked one of the many south Kansas City streets without sidewalks, “this guy wanted to make a right turn that we were momentarily blocking him from making. So he eases around us, but then he peels out to show us we have been a hindrance to his otherwise smooth day.”
The inevitable conflicts between pedestrians and cars take on greater urgency with many streets that connect children to schools, or people with disabilities to stores or bus stops.
Many Northland neighborhoods lack sidewalks, including some leading to North Kansas City School District elementary and middle schools. The Hickman Mills and Center school districts in south Kansas City also deal with a large number of missing sidewalks.
The danger multiplies after snow days, Center School District spokeswoman Kelly Wachel said. Snow plowed to the edge of the street may leave children no room to step away from the path of an oncoming car.
“It’s a never-ending job,” said Paul Fregeau, the assistant superintendent for support services, “trying to install infrastructure to make things safer for kids.”
The size of the sidewalk portion of the bond issue would likely limit what the city can do in building new sidewalks, Wagner said.
The city may look to split some costs with property owners where residents agree they need sidewalks, he said.
Done right, Moore said, sidewalks can have a democratizing effect.
“It levels the playing field,” she said. “It makes sure everyone who can walk or run or who uses a wheelchair or might be sight-limited can get from point A to point B, and it’s the same everywhere.”