A Record $55 Million Was Allocated in the Past Two Budgets for Sidewalks. So Where Are They?

When Mina Johnson was elected to Metro Council a year ago, she asked Metro Public Works about a sidewalk that has long been on the list of wishful capital projects, but never in the spending budget. Could the department install the sidewalk now? Students attending Hillwood High School who use free bus passes are let off on Harding Pike, and walk 0.7 miles on Davidson Road over train tracks and in ditches on the side of the road, alongside commuter traffic and school buses, sometimes in the dark.

The Metro Nashville Department of Public Works divided the project into three phases, citing budget constraints. The first phase covers 0.4 miles from Hillwood High School to H.G. Hill Middle School, which will be useful to the middle-schoolers who use the high school’s athletic facilities. The second phase will add 0.2 miles of sidewalk, and the final 0.1 mile phase will reach Harding Pike.

Only the first phase is listed in “Projects Planned and In-Progress,” just compiled by the department, and, along with 51 other sidewalk projects in the city, that short sidewalk remains mired in the design phase with no estimated date of completion.

“Something’s not right,” says Johnson. “They haven’t even done the first phase. Kids should be a priority.”

Dr. Stacy Dorris, a pediatric allergy and immunology specialist at Vanderbilt, agrees. Dorris has become a pedestrian crusader, fighting for new sidewalks and repairs on Bowling Avenue from West End to Woodmont, next to Elmington Park. “It’s not fair that families have to risk their safety to get to the park,” she says. Progress has been elusive. “I’ve been talking about this for three years, and I’m in the same place I was.”

Patience is waning all around the city. The Google group Walking and Biking in Nashville was started last year to keep residents informed. Hume-Fogg Academic High School students convened the community project Stop! Take Notice to increase pedestrian safety downtown. Newcomers from more walkable cities and longtime Nashvillians are meeting to discuss walkability in their neighborhoods.

Even with effort, funding and the mayor behind the sidewalks cause, improvement is hard to find. Want to walk to the nearest park or greenway? You could very well wind up walking inside a ditch and darting vehicular traffic, with no safe place to cross the street. How about if you decide to take public transit? Without sidewalks, it may take real courage to walk to the closest bus stop.

Metro Council members say they don’t understand what’s taking so long. When Burkley Allen was elected to Metro Council in 2011, she compiled a list of two dozen places in her Vanderbilt/Belmont district that needed better pedestrian infrastructure. “They did the repairs in the first two years, even some I didn’t ask for,” she says. As for new sidewalks, her district received its second a few months ago. “It’s a long, drawn-out process,” Allen says.

“I am frustrated, I think we all are,” says Ed Cole, president of the Alliance for Green Hills. “All trips involve an important component, that’s walking. It’s got to be upgraded and made more urgent.”

This has been a glaring problem for years. Former mayors Bill Purcell and Karl Dean recognized it, and began to allocate more funding. “The demand is there,” Dean says. “When I go to Kroger, people ask where their sidewalk is.” He urges patience. “We’re making up for decades of not doing it,” he says.

For the 2015-2016 fiscal year, $25 million was allocated for sidewalks. It was a welcome boost from outgoing Mayor Dean, who had already devoted $57 million to sidewalks in the previous seven years. But as the fiscal year came to a close in June 2016, none of the chosen new sidewalks for the year were installed. To date, not one of those sidewalks has materialized.

It’s bewildering. Where are the sidewalks? There are $35.5 million in specific new sidewalk projects in the works, for a total of 86,782 linear feet (16.4 miles). Even with those, Nashville remains well behind peer cities: Memphis has more than 3,400 miles of sidewalk, Nashville will have 1,119.

Yet the city can’t seem to get concrete poured for new sidewalks. Some of the projects on the list are a few years old. Date for installation is “as soon as possible,” says Billy Fields, spokesperson for Metro Public Works. “Historically, complicated projects can take as long as three years to complete.” 

A shakeup in leadership at Public Works, a yearlong strategic planning process and investigation into a possible new Metro Department of Transportation are taxing resources, at least in the short run. The current stagnation is worth it if these efforts bring faster results, says Councilman Freddie O’Connell.

Methodical planning has tried the patience of thousands of residents who told the city of their desire for sidewalks three years ago, when the planning department initiated NashvilleNext, and they said it again for the Metro Transit Authority’s nMotion plan, and again for Public Works’ WalknBike. Others participated in the Chamber of Commerce and Urban Land Institute studies. There is universal fatigue.

“I’m actually sick of planning,” Mayor Megan Barry told a crowd at the Open Streets Nashville festival on Oct. 30. “I actually want to start doing.”

Though last year’s budget has yet to be exhausted —  in fact, sidewalks are still being constructed with 2014-2015 funds  — the mayor allocated another $30 million to sidewalks this year. However, half of the budget goes to repairs. With an average cost of $434 per linear foot, and individual projects ranging from $85,000 to $4.35 million, that $15 million can only do so much. Furthermore, planning is a long process.

“People think you pick a street [that needs a sidewalk], and you build it,” says Jason Radinger, bike-ped coordinator at Metro Public Works. “It doesn’t work that way. There are a lot of factors that go into getting a sidewalk shovel-ready. It takes eight months to a year to get a complete plan.”

It works like this: A street is identified as one that needs a sidewalk, with priority given to locations near schools and parks or where existing sidewalks need connections. Alternatively, a council member can propose a location. A survey is conducted. Radinger meets with the council member, community meetings take place for stakeholder input, and other Metro entities are consulted, including MTA and the parks and water departments.

Easements and right-of-way arrangements must be completed. An ordinance has to pass the Metro Council for each parcel that Public Works buys. Fair market value is determined by the county property assessor, but the property owner has to agree on the value. “If one person holds out, we have to go through a legal process,” says Radinger. He cites one owner currently delaying a sidewalk because reappraisals next year will likely raise the value. Occasionally, residents flatly oppose a sidewalk. “Sometimes you can do without the easement, but it pisses off homeowners,” Radinger says. “We want to make sure we’re all leaving happy, holding hands.”

Engineers plan the sidewalk. Then it is evaluated for stormwater effects, along with every other construction project in the county. “One of our projects is 37th in line for a storm water review,” says Radinger. The plan must be reviewed for Americans With Disabilities Act compliance, and the Tennessee Department of Transportation reviews it as well. The ongoing paving schedule is considered — would adding a sidewalk mean a newly repaved road would have to be torn up? Utilities are consulted, and poles may have to be relocated, adding time and expense.

Sometimes a sidewalk can be extraordinarily costly. For example, the new sidewalk on Hart Lane from Jere Baxter Middle Prep to Ellington Parkway is 800 linear feet, but is costing $2 million because tons of rock and dirt have to be removed, according to Fields. Public Works worked with TDOT to arrange partial state funding.

After months of planning, a sidewalk contractor is asked for a bid. Metro has to produce a bond. Then Public Works has to get time on the calendar of a busy contractor. Finally, a new sidewalk is installed.

Slow progress doesn’t sit well given that more than two dozen pedestrians have been killed since the beginning of last year. The outcry for more walkable streets has reached a crescendo in some neighborhoods. Residents near 51st Avenue North are upset that even though the street has just been redesigned, storm water problems fixed, and bike lanes added, there are still no sidewalks to access Richland Creek Greenway at the end of the street. Residents near Eighth Avenue South, and tourists renting houses there, are upset that they can’t safely walk to restaurants and bars.

The most dangerous place to walk in the county is Lower Broadway. More than a year ago, stanchions were installed to temporarily widen the sidewalk in the name of safety. With the influx of tourists and conventioneers taking over narrow sidewalks in a nighttime street jamboree, more pedestrian crashes took place there than anywhere else in the city. Intoxicated revelers were crossing the street mid-block, right into traffic.

Both Public Works and the Metro Department of Planning suggested widening the sidewalks, but businesses wanted to keep on-street parking for deliveries of beer and load-in by musicians. Instead of charging through these concerns and simply improving the sidewalks, Public Works took over the parking spaces and set up a 90-day experiment. The stanchions are still up a year later, and a permanent solution cannot be expected any time soon. A few merchants still want on-street parking, says Ron Yearwood, assistant director of the Nashville Civic Design Center, and another year of experimentation commences.

The urban designers of Gehl Studio (of Times Square revitalization fame) have been hired to consult. Their recent survey and stakeholder meetings revealed that there is a need for shade, storm water management, outdoor seating and dining, and more nighttime activity at the riverfront. And some people are still jaywalking. Gehl will host another stakeholder workshop to discuss pilot projects. 

Yearwood sees testing as important to the process, noting that Times Square evolved over many years to become what it is today. Gehl’s recommendations for Lower Broadway will be issued in early 2017, and Yearwood estimates it will be at least another year before there is heavy investment to permanently fix the situation.

Temporary infrastructure is becoming popular in other parts of the city as well. “Sometimes the price tags and time involved in major projects get in the way of getting things on the ground quickly,” says Nora Kern, executive director of Walk Bike Nashville. Mayor Barry condones tactical urbanism, and the city granted $25,000 to TURBO, the volunteer organization behind pop-up walkability events and a demonstration “complete streets” block party.

There are high hopes for the $322,000 WalknBike plan, the update to the Strategic Plan for Sidewalks and Bikeways, expected to be adopted early next year. It will include a five-year plan of sidewalk projects, shortening the planning time for each sidewalk by one to three months — the time it now takes to decide on the year’s projects. Furthermore, it will encourage sidewalk planning consultants to add staff, says Radinger. That heavy reliance on outside consultants may also be re-evaluated; Metro employs only seven part- or full-time bicycle and pedestrian staff, while Denver, an aspirational city, employs 26. Furthermore, Kern anticipates the new plan will abandon the 50/50 split between new installations and repairs to increase funding new sidewalks, and drop the requirement that every council district receive a portion of the annual sidewalk budget.

Advocates are bringing more solutions. Knowing that the pace quickens when city coffers are boosted by private funding, Cole is galvanizing support for a Green Hills Business Improvement District, identical to the one in the Gulch. Property owners would be assessed, and state and federal funds would match. “It’s an arrangement where people can know they’re going to get what they pay for,” Cole says.

Though statistics are not readily available through Public Works on sidewalks installed by real estate developers, they are often responsible for building sidewalks on a site. Council member Angie Henderson, who began volunteering in an effort to make Green Hills more walkable in 2000, thinks Nashville developers are let off easy. She has drafted a bill that would increase requirements, include the builders of one- and two-family homes located near a designated “center,” and make it harder to merely pay a fee and forgo the sidewalk. Disconnected coverage can be filled in by the city, Henderson says.

For side streets that are low priority for new sidewalks, Dorris has invented Walking Districts. “Cars would be the visitor,” she envisions. With minimal expense — Metro traffic engineer Chip Knauf estimates $5,000 a neighborhood — Walking District signage, decals on the pavement and lowered speed limits should make walking safer. Hillsboro/West End, Cleveland Park and Pinnacle Point are being considered for the strategy.

“It’s important to provide the opportunity to walk,” Henderson says. “It’s a fundamental civic right.”

Like what you read?

Click here to make a contribution to the Scene and support local journalism!