The sidewalk problem–who pays and how does it get enforced?–is yet to be resolved.

It’s been two years since we last bemoaned the condition of city sidewalks in these pages. For such a foot-happy community— 12th among cities under 100,000 in 2012, with more than 18 percent of residents walking to work—Morgantown has terrible sidewalks. Since a new city manager came on in February 2017 and the city seated a new council in July, we wondered: any progress?

Answer: It’s under discussion.

Here’s the origin of the problem. Paving and construction of new homes are supposed to kick in sidewalk construction and repair, according to the city’s 1967 sidewalk ordinance and a 1979 amendment. But the city has handed waivers out liberally, leaving many gaps and stretches of disrepair. A provision that makes property owners responsible for the condition of their sidewalks has also been unenforced.

The last real focus on the issue was in 2010. A city survey showed that only about half of properties in the city had sidewalks at that time, and only about half of those were in good condition.

Also at that time, the Pedestrian Safety Board suggested a common-sense first level of improvement. Not every property has to have a sidewalk in order for the system to be minimally safe and functional, the PSB suggested in its 2010 Pedestrian Safety Plan. The board mapped a proposed network of arterial sidewalks. Quieter streets might not be fully sidewalked, but those would feed into a reasonably dense network of good sidewalks on more heavily traveled streets.

That proposal is yet to be acted on. Pedestrian Safety Board Chairman Matthew Cross says he’s raised the issue with the current city administration. “They are now looking to move forward with the previous sidewalk code that has been neglected for decades,” he says. Meanwhile, the average rate of about two pedestrian-related accidents reported per month for the past 20 years continues.

So Far

There has been some progress. Many fewer sidewalk waivers are granted, for example. “It’s got to be a hardship,” says City Engineer Damien Davis. “Like if it’s on a hillside where you’d also need a retaining wall.”

The city has also put a big emphasis recently on improving American Disabilities Act accessibility. “In the past two years, we’ve paved 20 miles of roadway,” Davis says. “With that project, we are required, when we’re maintaining our streets, to upgrade the ADA ramps. We’ve probably done 350 ADA ramps in the past two years.”

Yet to be Figured Out

Sidewalks aren’t cheap: $100 per linear foot of four-foot-wide sidewalk, by 2010 estimate. So the question everyone trips over is how to reverse the lax sidewalk commitment of the past in a way that is fair and viable. Many ideas have been laid out.

The PSB suggested in 2010 that the city institute an annual fee on residents of $1 per foot of frontage—$60 or $80 for the typical property—to be used for sidewalks and other pedestrian amenities. That proposal was not well received.

The city has some tens of thousands of dollars in a sidewalk account, Davis says. Ideas include using it as a match to apply for grants or offering it directly as matching funds for residents who fix their sidewalks.

Alternatively, he says, it could be treated as a rotating fund the city would use to fix sidewalks where residents won’t, and then charge them for the work. One approach would be to contact residents who need to improve sidewalks two years in advance of planned paving of their streets to give them a year to address it. The city’s paving contractors could take care of any unaddressed sidewalks with paving, and the city would bill the residents.

There was discussion at one point of using city sidewalk funds to encourage entire blocks of neighbors to improve their sidewalks all at one time, which would cut construction costs. “That discussion is still going on,” says PSB Chairman Cross.

Another cost-cutting idea is to create a city sidewalk crew rather than contracting. “I think it’s fair to consider that,” Cross says.

This is all behind-the-scenes talk— there’s no firm proposal or timeline. Davis references the 2010 Pedestrian Safety Plan as a worthwhile first target. “When we figure out what we want to do with sidewalks, we want to look at those main arterials first and then the back streets after that.”

Residents can raise sidewalk issues at their neighborhood association meetings and contact council members about them. They can also attend the meetings of the Pedestrian Safety Board, second Mondays of the month at 4:30 p.m. in the Public Safety Building at Walnut and Spruce streets.

written and photographed by Pam Kasey

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Pam Kasey
Written by Pam Kasey
Pam Kasey has traveled, brewed, farmed, counseled, and renovated, but most loves to write. She has degrees in economics from the University of Chicago and in journalism from West Virginia University. She loves celebrating Morgantown and West Virginia as executive editor at New South Media.