Creative ways to build sidewalks

Nick Della Volpe
Features columnist

We need your help.

As a city councilman, you often hear from neighborhood groups and individuals about the need/desire for more sidewalks, a safer way to get around the neighborhood on foot or bike. In a May 10 Shopper article, I wrote about the five criteria the city’s engineers use to assign priority to sidewalk segments to build.

Let’s focus on quantity. Currently, Knoxville builds roughly a mile-plus of new sidewalks and rebuilds another mile-plus of reworked/repaired walks each budget year. How can we build more?

If you skip over the restrictions of topography and space limitations, that work generally costs over $1 million per mile. Indeed, it is estimated that retrofitting sidewalks in established areas costs about $300 per running foot, considering land acquisition cost, plans, stormwater drainage (piping and infrastructure), curbs, ADA requirements and the actual concrete pad work. Most of this work is contracted out by the city, although our Public Service crews tackle small segment repairs and replacement, when a break in regular work permits.

Public Service is also building some greenway segments.

How can we improve on our sidewalk build-out rate? More money is the simple answer, but that resource is as scarce as a pinch of saffron for your next paella. City government services already cost some $215 million of your annual tax dollars. A general tax increase, anyone? Didn’t think so. Realistically, we have to look for creative solutions. That’s where you come in.

One obvious solution is to require new subdivisions to include sidewalks in their design and build-out. When built as part of that original build-out and grading, the cost is much lower, estimated at $100 per foot (it depends on drainage, grade, etc.) – roughly 1/3 of the cost of a retrofit.

Those dollars would be well invested – buyers will reward the builders for the higher property value conveyed.

What else might be tried? Let me jump-start your thoughts:

Have the city build more sidewalks in-house, hiring a full time crew (e.g., four or five masons and laborers plus a Bobcat operator and a carpenter). They could progress block by block virtually year-round.

Devise a subscription fee or tax surcharge, block by block, to fund additional contractor services where neighbors agree to pay. I remember years ago KUB instituted a sewer-improvement charge for their build-out.

Organize skilled, in-community handy-dads to tackle one block at a time; recognizing that they would have to clear plans with the city engineers (there are ADA, drainage and material issues). Realistically, they might need a volunteer architect or engineer to prepare plans for approval. Consider generic plans by the East Tennessee Community Design Center?

Scour and reach out to state and federal grants that might aid non-polluting transportation.

Start a build-a-sidewalk lottery (probably requires state legislation) with the proceeds dedicated exclusively to building more sidewalks. Hey, we are sending kids to college already.

Where the topography is relatively flat, substitute a ground-level, meandering path through the edge of front yards – essentially a greenway. Give them an easement. Mom could easily mow right over the grass without edging.

Seek business sponsors, award development mitigation credit for sidewalk additions.

That’s just a start. I’ve asked my district neighborhoods to discuss this at their next meeting. You may have the answer. So, put on your thinking caps. Let’s rise up out of the ditches!

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