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Houston Coalition for Complete Streets

Better sidewalks needs to be everyone’s job

It’s the only way we’re going to make progress.

Houstonians annoyed by cracked, missing or buckled sidewalks along their streets may be surprised to learn that city rules make residents responsible for fixing them.

At the urging of council members three years ago, Houston Public Works tried something new, launching a program that let homeowners get quotes for sidewalk repairs from city-approved contractors, then pay for the fix.

Though 155 residents signed up and 105 got cost estimates, only two agreed to pay the bill — likely because the average quote was $5,000.

Public Works officials acknowledge the city’s involvement added overhead that resulted in estimates double or triple what a resident otherwise would pay. The program has been scrapped.

Still, city officials say adding more sidewalks is a worthy goal. The issue, Public Works Deputy Director Jeff Weatherford said, is that Houston has no sidewalk repair budget and sets aside just $2.6 million a year to add new sidewalks through a few targeted programs. Compare that with the $83 million needed to fulfill 580 pending requests for new sidewalks.

“There’s a funding shortfall,” Weatherford said. “We’d love to expand it, we’re having conversations about different ways to expand it, we’re looking at priorities for grants, other alternative funding sources. But until we’ve worked out a way to get that, it’s going to be a balancing act.”

Residents can apply to have up to four blocks of sidewalks added near schools and along major streets, but typically must wait three to five years. Residents with disabilities also can apply to have up to 1,500 feet of sidewalks built around their homes. These Pedestrian Accessibility Reviews, which have produced about 75 finished sidewalk projects in the last five years, get top priority.

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Advocates with the 6-year-old Houston Complete Streets Coalition want to work toward a sidewalk plan for the city, assessing the presence and condition of existing sidewalks, compiling the resulting information in a database and using it, alongside identified priorities, to guide decisions on where to install and repair sidewalks.

Michael Huffmaster, who leads the group of civic clubs known as the Super Neighborhood Alliance and represents that group on the coalition, said one proposal is to incorporate public facilities like community centers, libraries and parks into the program that adds sidewalks around schools.

“It’s up to City Council to fund sidewalks at a level that makes a meaningful contribution to the needs of the city,” Huffmaster said. “It’s sad that we put the burden of the sidewalk on the adjacent property owner because it’s an improvement that’s within the public right of way. Mobility in the city, pedestrian safety, should be priorities.”

Weatherford said he does not oppose adding facilities like libraries to the school sidewalk program or the idea of a sidewalk plan, but he said the funding question must be solved first, lest the backlog of unfunded sidewalk requests swell and the new plan sit unused on a shelf.

I have two thoughts about this. One is that the city should revisit that Public Works program, but in a style similar to one that already exists for financing the installation of solar panels: Have the city pay for the work up front (floating a bond if need be for the capital costs), then letting homeowners who get their sidewalks fixed pay that back via a charge added to their monthly water bill. The overall amount the city would have to borrow isn’t that much, and individual homeowners ought to be able to pay it off in three years or so; payment options can be given for that. I don’t see a down side to this.

I would also expand upon the Super Neighborhood Alliance idea. How can we get other government entities involved? As I have said several times before, the city of Houston is also (almost entirely) within Harris County. Metro has done some work at and around bus stops since the 2012 referendum giving them a larger share of the sales tax revenue. I’d like to see that continued and expanded with the 2019 referendum. HISD and the other school districts should kick in for better sidewalks around their schools, as a matter of student safety. H-GAC should seek out state and federal grant money for sidewalks. This still needs to be a primary responsibility of the city, but there’s no reason it has to be the city’s sole responsibility. If we want to solve the problem, we need to make it everyone’s priority.

Complete Streets coming

This is good to see.

Houston, long ruled by the automobile, will give more consideration to the needs of pedestrians and cyclists in designing its streets and neighborhoods.

Mayor Annise Parker on Thursday said she is drafting, with public works and planning officials, an executive order stating that the city will adhere to “complete streets” standards. The change could enable some neighborhoods to press for wider sidewalks, shadier streets and bicycle lanes, for example.

“Houston streets can and should accommodate the needs of all users, not just those behind the wheel,” Parker told a crowd gathered for the announcement and the dedication of Bagby in the Midtown area as Texas’ first “green” street.

Parker said she would sign the order after fully briefing the City Council, as early as next week. While the order doesn’t directly affect the rules planners and engineers use, supporters say it changes Houston policies from a narrow focus on moving cars to a broader effort to provide mobility for cars and other means of getting around.

Giving thought to pedestrians can lead to subtle but meaningful changes in the standards the city uses to consider applications for new developments and how streets are redesigned or improved.

“This is a process the people are a part of,” said Jay Blazek Crossley, a member of the Houston Coalition for Complete Streets, one of the groups that pushed for the change.

The new standards will apply to projects and streets within city control. State-maintained freeways, for example, are meant to move vehicle traffic and would be unaffected.

As Stace notes, this has also been a priority for CM Ed Gonzalez, so if you like this announcement, thank him as well. Houston Tomorrow has a quote from the Mayor’s verbal remarks at the event on Thursday that I think captures what is actually being changed here:

Frankly, it’s always been possible to do a Complete Street in Houston, but the default has been let’s get those cars moving. Now we want the default to be a Complete Street and anything different than that to be something that has to be the exception.

That’s the key. The Bagby location in Midtown where the event was exemplifies this, because the developers of that area had to get a variance from the city in order to proceed. Under this change, they would not need a variance but someone who wanted to build something the old way would. That won’t have any immediate effect on existing streets, but as Rebuild Houston moves forward you should expect to see at least some of the affected streets get redesigned to incorporate this new vision. See here and here for a basic primer on what “complete streets” means.

The Mayor’s press release has more, as does the press release from CM Gonzalez. As noted in the story, the Bagby Midtown location also received certification as the first Greenroads Project in the State of Texas. See beneath the fold for that press release, The Highwayman and Texas Leftist for more on what this will mean in practice, here for more on what it was about Bagby Midtown that got it this certification, and here for more on Greenroads.

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