An unusual thing happened not long ago at the Metro Courthouse. A big-ticket item came before the Metro Council — and the council said no.
On the agenda that Tuesday night, Feb. 18, was an ordinance authorizing land and right-of-way acquisition for a proposed pedestrian bridge that would connect the Gulch to SoBro. That in itself didn't raise any caution signals, at least not to the bill's sponsor, Councilwoman Erica Gilmore. In recent capital budgets, the council had tentatively approved funding for unspecified bridge projects.
But the Gulch pedestrian bridge had not been specifically identified in those plans. A pet project of Mayor Karl Dean's office, the bridge would be about 700 feet long and cost between $15 and $16 million. Typically, the council's fealty to the executive branch is so reliable that Metro political observers take its approval for granted.
After Gilmore introduced the bill, council members began to speak. What observers expected would be a rubber-stamping soon turned into a public trampling, as council reps from Shelby Bottoms to Belle Meade commenced a Festivus of aired grievances. If the city wanted to build "a 700 foot sidewalk" — as one councilman tagged the project, a label that stuck — why didn't the mayor's office look past the downtown core to Nashville's neighborhoods?
"Those of you who are district council members, I'd just ask you to think about, how many sidewalk projects do you have on request with Public Works for your district?" said Councilman Phil Claiborne, while Public Works representatives and Metro finance director Rich Riebeling listened on in the chambers. "I have at least 15 that have been on the books since 2007 when I was first elected into the council. You know how much sidewalk I've got? I've got a block this past fall, and it is a piece of concrete, it's not even a full street sidewalk. This is not the right priority."
Councilwoman Emily Evans, a frequent Dean administration critic, sounded similar concerns.
"I don't know how I will vote for this," Evans said. "I thought when I voted for sidewalks in the last capital budget that we would finally get a sidewalk that connected H.G. Hill Middle School to Hillwood High School so children who take college level courses at Hillwood High School could walk to their school next door. We've been asking for that sidewalk for 10 years."
Noting that the city already had a "bridge over the river Gulch" in the Demonbreun Street bridge, Evans said the Gulch pedestrian bridge was not only redundant, but in light of glaring needs elsewhere, "one of the most outrageous proposals I've seen."
"We don't need this project," she said. "But children who are at H.G. Hill Middle who are taking college level classes at Hillwood need to be able to walk next door. And until I see the priorities of sidewalks in this city shifted to things like that, I'm never going to vote for something like this."
In the end, the bill was indefinitely deferred, which left Gilmore stinging (and cautioning that some of those members might need her support someday). Some observers read the minor uprising as a sign that the council — which in recent years has signed off on the half-a-billion-dollar Music City Center and the $65 million Sulphur Dell baseball stadium — had grown weary of the Dean administration's big-ticket projects, and that the Gulch pedestrian bridge proposal was a convenient way to express those frustrations.
But it also brought to the surface latent frustrations about the city's infrastructure, and sidewalks in particular. At one point in a council committee discussion, At-Large Councilman Charlie Tygard, who also opposed the Gulch pedestrian bridge, said "it'd be a sexy-looking sidewalk." Truth is, while they make a city more walkable, and in many ways more livable, sidewalks are anything but sexy.
That might be a reason they continue to be one of Nashville's most glaring deficiencies.
Nashville was largely built without sidewalks in mind. A post-World War II development boom brought about many of the city's neighborhoods and subdivisions, but without many of the regulations that exist today. A line from the city's Strategic Plan for Sidewalks and Bikeways released in March 2003 puts it in perspective: If you live in an area developed during a period spanning half a century, there's a good chance your sidewalks leave something to be desired — if you have any.
"Where sidewalks are generally lacking are those areas of the county that developed between the 1940s and the mid-1990s," the report says. "In terms of land mass, more development occurred during this period than at any time before. Some pre-war neighborhoods also do not have sidewalks, or have missing segments within their sidewalk networks."
Jenna Smith, Metro Public Works' spokeswoman and projects manager, tells the Scene that sidewalks back then were often built as cheaply as possible, if they were built at all. Ever since, Nashville has been playing catch-up.
It wasn't until 1991 that subdivision regulations required sidewalks on one side of new streets. For subdivisions on existing streets, they were required only if the street was being reconstructed. In 2006, those regulations were amended to require sidewalks on both sides of new streets. Later, in 2010, Dean signed an executive order creating Metro's Complete Streets Policy, which dictated that new public streets must accommodate all modes of transportation. (See the 28th/31st Avenue Connector, completed in 2012.)
The strategic plan was commissioned under then-Mayor Bill Purcell, who made hay of sidewalks during his campaign and channeled significant funding to them early in his tenure. The plan's goal was to assess Nashville's existing sidewalks, and develop a plan for a more walkable future.
The resulting document shows just how far behind the city was.
It cites a January 2002 public opinion survey — of 1,547 respondents, in equal number from each of the Metro Planning Department's 14 subareas around the city — in which "less than half of the respondents agreed with the statement, 'In Nashville, walking is a safe, convenient and practical way to get from one place to another.' " Of the respondents who said they did not walk, "nearly three-quarters attributed it to the lack of sidewalks in their area."
The assessment of the city's then-752 miles of existing sidewalks found them lacking in quantity as well as quality. The ratio of sidewalk miles to roadway miles — 752 to 2,154, or .35 to 1 — put Metro Nashville behind the other two cities reviewed in the assessment, Portland, Ore., (.46 to 1) and Indianapolis (.93 to 1). Of Nashville's existing sidewalks, 3,160 blocks, or 44.1 percent, had more than 10 problems: obstructions, cracks, damaged segments, missing segments, excessive cross slopes.
To be sure, some were in good shape. But they amounted to fewer than 1 percent of the city's sidewalks. Only .5 percent, or 36 blocks, were free of problems.
In 2000, under then-Law Director Karl Dean, Metro voluntarily acknowledged to the U.S. Department of Justice that the city was widely out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. As part of a resulting settlement, the city agreed to assess the problems and make plans to correct them. When it came to sidewalks, the problems were many. According to the strategic plan's assessment, for instance, out of 15,964 locations that required sidewalk ramps per ADA guidelines, 10,261 ramps were missing.
Mark Macy, Public Works' director of engineering, compares addressing Nashville's sidewalk needs to eating an elephant one bite at a time. Since the completion of the strategic plan, one of Macy's many tasks at the department has been to lead the nibbling.
In five years of implementing the plan, from its release to the end of Purcell's administration, Public Works constructed or repaired more than 124 miles of sidewalks. It also replaced or installed 7,200 curb ramps. In the fall of 2007, after he was elected mayor, Dean called for an update to the plan. Since fiscal year 2008, the department has constructed or repaired 46 miles of sidewalks.
In all, though, there are still miles and miles to go. Of the approximately 240 miles of new sidewalks proposed in the strategic plan, only 45 miles have been built. As for repair and replacement of existing sidewalks, the plan called for about 750 miles to be upgraded. Only 160 of those have been completed.
That explains why so many Nashvillians believe, at least anecdotally, that the city's sidewalks are at a crisis point. Mention sidewalks, whether in Woodbine, Woodlawn or Inglewood, and residents recount having to walk in traffic in streets lacking sidewalks. Or they tell of sidewalks that exist but are effectively useless, thanks to extensive damage or obstructions. Or sidewalks that end abruptly before arriving anywhere a person might reasonably want to reach by foot. For all the initiatives the city has tried to get the increasingly obese populace on its feet, Nashville remains a place that doesn't invite a lot of foot travel.
Worse, correcting that is more complicated than it might seem. To begin with, Public Works is responsible for a staggering amount of city work. The department manages sidewalks, roads and bridges but also parking meters, parking spaces and parking garages. They pick up trash and recycling. They even pick up dead animals. When most people think of local government, they're thinking of Public Works.
Thus the department's call center receives about 100,000 calls per year, according to Public Works officials. Almost a third of those — about 30,000 — are requests for services. Since fiscal year 2008, officials say, the call center has received 460 requests for new sidewalks, and that's not even in the top five categories for service calls. Placing higher are concerns such as roadway patching, sign/signal repairs, dumping and litter removal, traffic engineering and vegetation.
When the department does set out to build new sidewalks, a host of logistical questions and challenges arise. Among those Smith lists for the Scene are "coordination with other agencies and other projects, higher costs associated with need to acquire right-of-way, relocation of existing utilities, and/or storm drainage needs, public interests and whether or not the project is eligible for and can leverage additional funding from outside sources and/or grants."
The department prioritizes projects using a Pedestrian Generator Index. The index was developed through the strategic plan process, which analyzes locations based on their proximity to factors such as schools, churches and transit.
But ultimately, it comes down to money. The Dean administration has not ignored the issue on that front, appropriating $40.2 million for sidewalks in his six years in office, according to Public Works. In keeping with the guidelines laid out in the strategic plan, more than 50 percent of those funds go toward repairs and maintenance on existing sidewalks, and more than 20 percent combined goes to pedestrian enhancements and correcting existing ramp problems. Of the $40.2 million in sidewalk funding under Dean, according to the department, about 25 percent (or $10.5 million) has been spent on the construction of new sidewalks, for an average of $1.75 million per year.
For comparison, Purcell spent a total of $57.5 million on sidewalks during his tenure, averaging $7.2 million per year. So far, Dean is averaging $6.7 million annually.
"Mayor Dean has continued the trend to aggressively invest in sidewalks in capital spending plans, despite going through a recession and flood," Dean spokeswoman Bonna Johnson tells the Scene. "We recognize that creating infrastructure for bikes and pedestrians is essential to our quality of life, and multi-modal transportation has been a priority of this administration. That can be seen in the city's investments not just in sidewalks but also in bikeways, greenways and the Complete Streets Executive Order."
Around the city, there are signs of slow progress. An ongoing project in South Nashville, for instance, is about 20 percent complete, adding sidewalks and pedestrian enhancements along the south side of Harding Place. Phase One, from Nolensville Pike to Tampa Drive, was paid for by a nearly $2 million grant from the state. Phase 2, from Tampa Drive to I-24, is just more than half a mile at a cost of $2 million to be funded by Metro.
Across the river, in Riverside Village, a recently completed project connected patches of existing sidewalks. Not surprisingly, the change makes the thriving centerpiece of the Inglewood neighborhood significantly friendlier to residents walking to and from the surrounding streets.
But decide to stroll from one of those streets up to the Kroger or the Walgreens on Gallatin Road — about a mile's walk — and you're in a situation that is by no means unique. A brief section of sidewalk gives way to a bike path, which ends soon enough. That leaves you in the street, or just to the side of it, until a sidewalk re-emerges. Sidewalks line the road in front of a stretch of nice homes leading up to Gallatin — but as you walk, you notice the neighborhood streets to your right and left are without. As it exists now, nothing about this stretch of road — like many around the city — is conducive to walking.
More than a decade after the release of the strategic plan, as the city grapples with looming traffic crunches and lagging public transportation, Nashville has taken steps toward becoming a more pedestrian-friendly city. But it still has a long walk ahead. As if to crystallize that fact, the opening paragraph of a 2001 Scene story, headlined "We Desperately Need Sidewalks," still fits today.
"Why, on earth, this city decided long ago not to build sidewalks is a mystery," the piece begins. "This is how it works in Nashville today: You leave your house to go buy a quart of milk; you try to walk to the store; you have to walk along the road because there are no sidewalks; you dodge traffic."
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