Nashville has allocated $60 million for sidewalks. What has the city accomplished?
One of Mayor Megan Barry’s first major announcements after taking office in September 2015 was to devote more funding to sidewalks, which Nashville sorely lacks.
She allocated $30 million in each of her first two years in office, more than her predecessors. Her ambitious public transit plan depends on people walking to bus and light rail stations.
So what has the city done with the money? It built 3.5 miles of new sidewalk, in addition to making repairs. That’s slightly more than the average built during the previous five years, but less than half the pace set out by the city’s recent pedestrian and bikeways plan. At that clip, it would take more than a millennium (to be clear, that is 1000 years!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) to line all of Nashville’s streets.
City officials say they've spent the last two years refining their sidewalk plans and designing difficult, time-consuming projects. Besides the completed miles, they have an additional 2.4 miles under construction and 4.9 miles scheduled for construction. Also, real estate developers have built more than 20 miles since January 2016. But critics contend that Nashville’s Public Works Department spends too much on high-priced consultants, over-complicates some designs and is understaffed for the sidewalk surge.
“It’s pretty frustrating how slow it’s going,” said Nora Kern, executive director of Walk Bike Nashville, a pedestrian advocacy group. “I’m sure I can speak for a lot of people when I say that.”
While many residents look at sidewalks as quality-of-life amenities, they’re also key to safety, experts say. Pedestrian deaths in Nashville have reached a record high this year, with 19 people killed so far – up from 16 in all of 2016. As new residents move here expecting "walkability" and long-time residents have grown tired of waiting for sidewalks, Barry and others have emphasized new construction. Barry, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed.
Nashville lags behind comparable cities. Nearly two-thirds of the city’s streets have no sidewalks, according to a Metro consultant’s plan released this year. Austin, not a shining example, has half of all streets covered. Seattle has 71 percent.
With the scope of the problem laid bare, Metro officials have spent much of the past two years developing a system to prioritize which sidewalks to build first. Some projects, officials also say, are taking longer to design because they’re more complicated than those built during previous administrations.
“There’s perception that sidewalks are pretty easy to do, and sometimes they are, but sometimes they’re like mini road projects,” said Michael Briggs, the Metro Nashville manager of multimodal transportation planning. “The real reason we’ve slowed down is we’re getting to a lot of the harder projects.”
Metro tries to strike a balance between new construction and repairs
Earlier this year Metro finished its WalkNBike plan, which identified 91 miles of high-priority stretches of roadway. The priority sidewalk segments are along transit routes, dangerous roadways, near schools, and places with glaring sidewalk gaps. The total bill for those projects was estimated at $550 million. In total, Metro has 1,900 miles of streets without sidewalks.
We’re in the process of trying to turn the ship around,” Briggs said.
He pointed to one project being planned in West Nashville, at Davidson Road between H.G. Hill Middle School and Hillwood High School. Engineers had to design curbs, gutters, and maneuver the sidewalk path around major utility poles. In the past, Briggs said, Metro was more likely to tackle simple residential streets, or to build stripped-down walkways.
“They weren’t good quality sidewalks,” said Metro Councilwoman Angie Henderson, a longtime sidewalk proponent who represents Forest Hills and Oak Hill. “They were narrow, they were on the street. Those were frankly taking the easy path.”
Henderson was the lead sponsor of a bill that passed this year requiring more residential developers to add sidewalks when they build new single-family homes and duplexes, or to pay into a Metro sidewalk fund. It took effect in July.
While new sidewalk construction has taken a back seat to planning, Metro has repaired about 40 miles of damaged sidewalks since January 2016, outpacing the average for previous years. It spent roughly $10 million on repairs during that time, and $22 million on new construction.
That ratio of repairs to new construction is a departure from previous years, officials said, when it was closer to half-and-half. Officials are prioritizing new construction, but have just been slow to spend the money. More than $21 million is unencumbered from the $30 million fiscal 2017 budget.
As the backlog of projects accumulates, some have suggested that Metro could look for less expensive, less elaborate designs. Other cities rely on more “green” infrastructure -- using grass and other permeable surfaces to absorb runoff, instead of concrete. Metro officials say they are considering more environmentally-friendly, less expensive alternatives.
“It’s striking the balance between the quality of infrastructure and the speed of infrastructure,” said Henderson.
Are contractors boosting sidewalk costs?
Another drain on time and sidewalk resources, critics say, is Public Works’ reliance on contractors. After the 2008 financial crisis, Metro slashed its engineering staff when the capital improvement budget dwindled. Metro officials say they haven’t staffed up to build more sidewalks because of unpredictable funding. The sidewalk budget fluctuated between $8 million and $25 million, for instance, in the three years before Barry took office.
Instead, they’ve relied on an outside firm to manage the sidewalk program, with one full-time Public Works employee managing the contractors (others in Metro handle sidewalk projects part-time). Nashville-based Civic Engineering and Information Technologies signed a $10 million, five-year contract for sidewalk and bikeways project management in 2013.
Civic charges $160 per hour for a program manager, while Nashville’s on-staff sidewalks manager makes roughly $44 an hour, including health and retirement benefits
Metro officials say outsourcing allows them to ramp up the program quickly, and to scale back, depending on the funding. Also, if a given project is especially difficult, Briggs said, “it’s easier to shift contractors around from job to job if there are challenges.”
But some observers question if the city is getting the most for its money. Besides the complex project designs, contractors handle relatively low-skilled tasks: they attend community outreach meetings, interact with council members, and work on the project budgets.
“There’s a lot of non-engineering stuff that happens in the management of these contracts,” said Adams Carroll, a former Nashville planner who now directs Pittsburgh's bike share program.
He surveyed four other cities to see how much they budgeted per linear foot of new sidewalks. The average from Memphis, Louisville, Denver and Austin was $135, compared to Nashville’s estimate of more than $1,000 per foot. Metro officials point out their figure includes stormwater infrastructure costs and the cost for acquiring rights-of-way from adjacent property owners. It’s not clear whether the other cities factored in those costs.
Carroll said the comparison may not be perfect, but it points to another one of Nashville’s challenges: The city lumps a lot of expenses into the sidewalk budget besides sidewalk construction — from gutters to sewers, trees, and layers of consultants.
Metro Councilman John Cooper said he believes that Nashville’s sidewalk construction costs are roughly four times that of comparable cities.
“We haven't really come to terms with why,” said Cooper, who also questioned the use of contractors. “There is very little formal accountability.”
A representative from Civic did not respond to a request for comment.
How to measure progress?
The Public Works Department and the Planning Department are creating an online sidewalk progress tracker, so the public can see what is being built, and when. It will match the WalkNBike priority scores with cost estimates, to determine which segments will be built in the next few years. Expected to be completed months ago, the tracker has hit some technical snags, but officials are still hoping to complete it by the end of the year.
Councilwoman Henderson said she has been waiting for the tracker to evaluate if the city is building new sidewalks at a reasonable pace. Up to this point, Metro has not set a goal for sidewalk construction each year.
“We have to have measurable goals,” she said. “If we don’t have measurable short-term goals, how do we measure our long-term progress?”
Kern, the sidewalk advocate, says the tracker will satisfy a more fundamental need: “Most people have no idea what’s coming or how the money is being spent.”
New sidewalk construction by Metro Nashville Public Works
January 2016 - October 2017: 3.5 miles (1.9 miles/year average)
2015: 1.4 miles
Source: Metro Nashville Public Works, Tennessean analysis
Percent of streets with sidewalks
Source: Metro Nashville Public Works, WalkNBike Draft Plan (2016)