Cement Hasn't Dried On Tallahassee Sidewalk Fights

Aug 26, 2015

Building a sidewalk in the capital city is more complicated than laying some cement on the side of the road.  A sales tax extension has been approved to fund projects starting in 2020, but what about the growing demand for projects piling up before then?

A recent sidewalk addition along Centerville road by Tallahassee Memorial Hospital is just one example of a project that sat on a waiting list for nine years. Before its completion this summer, people dodged traffic and walked in the road. Now it provides a safe route to TMH for pedestrians. But it wasn’t a simple matter of pouring concrete.

The project had to include arborists to design a path around canopy trees and their shallow roots. Tallahassee’s famous canopies are a constant obstacle in sidewalk building. City Public Works Engineer, Steve Shafer, said the Centerville project is a source of pride because of the complexity and the extraordinary length of time to get the sidewalk in place.

"You have to adjust the utilities that were put in the place, or corridors, of where the sidewalks might be so, there's a lot of other work that goes in to getting ready to put sidewalks in - to move power poles, or cover ditches, that kind of thing, that otherwise, if you were designing it into a project, it's a lot more cost effective," Shafer said.                 

Local sidewalk planners say residents in general aren’t as receptive to sidewalks as one might think. Megan Doherty is the Principal Planner for the city and county’s joint planning department.

"They have to weigh other concerns when it comes to their property.  Some people for instance, have invested in, you know, a lot of landscaping - and they don't like the idea of that being torn up,” Doherty said. “Some people feel more sidewalks will result in more dog waste in their yard and they don’t like the idea of that."

On the other hand;

“We have two miles that is not complete. The City does have the right of way to complete those sidewalks so we think it should be pretty easy decided to give us the sidewalks and build those,” David Ferguson said. 

Ferguson is a Tallahassee resident who expressed his frustration with the process during a City Commission meeting last year.  

Sidewalks, where to build them, and who wants them have become a source of local controversy over the past year. Current demand for sidewalks is outstripping available funding.

Tallahassee City Commissioner Gil Ziffer said choosing which areas should be sidewalk priorities, is difficult. Like this battle between former Mayor John Marks and City Commissioner Nancy Miller.

“We got people out there – you right commissioner – we got people out there now expecting that they’re gonna have their sidewalks any day now. That they can do, they can,” Marks said.

“Just how long should they have to expect that?” Miller asked.

“Let me finish. Let me Finish,” Marks said.  

Ziffer said the City Commission now uses a matrix system for prioritizing projects. But even that changes.

“We have been going through a process for a couple of years of trying to revise the methodology we’ve used to develop the criteria for the first sidewalks to be built,” Ziffer said. “And we thought we had this correct formula, but we’re still evidently tweaking it a little bit.”

The list of sidewalk projects remains a work in progress. And City of Tallahassee Engineer Steve Shafer said the number of requested sidewalks demands some process of prioritization, even if that takes years.

"We have a process that we run through in which we determine the need for that sidewalk, relative to all the other needs that have already been brought to our attention,” Shafer said. “So we've got a list right now of $100 million dollars' worth of sidewalks that's been requested. We continually get them every week - we get new ones."

Shafer said the city spends about a million dollars per year to fix broken sidewalks, or make repairs like addressing trip hazards. New ones are considered based on demand, development, safety, and location to major intersections and schools.

When voters approved a sales tax extension, they approved $50 million dollars for new sidewalks. Megan Doherty, a sidewalk planner, said, when it comes to pedestrian choices, development helps move along sidewalk projects.

"The city of Tallahassee and Leon County really come a long way particularly over the last 5 years to try and provide more of those transportation options. And the sidewalk program is really key to that, especially when you look at how we are developing as a community,” Doherty said. “In the central Tallahassee area you have downtown, the Florida capitol, Cascade Park, FAMU way, FSU all within pretty much a mile of each other."

One project under construction now, is Magnolia Drive. It secured its funding during last year’s sidewalk fight in the City Commission chamber. Its plans include a 10 ft. multi-use path sidewalk. It along with the FAMU Way path toward Cascades Park, is expected to be finished early next year. The sales tax extension and additional city funding for sidewalks totaling $61.5 million dollars, will be available starting in 2020.