Transportation plan calls for massive increase in Greater Waco sidewalk construction

From the Getting There series
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MAP: Proposed sidewalk construction around Waco

Ashley Thornton has a dream of being able to get around Waco safely on foot without feeling the need for a DayGlo orange vest. Thornton, who lives at 30th Street and Sanger Avenue, walks both for exercise and transportation.

She considers most of her usual destinations within walking distance, though she often has to walk in the street — hence the vest.

She has walked to work at Baylor University, three miles away. She regularly walks to Lake Shore Baptist Church, four miles away. She even braves Valley Mills Drive to get to Whataburger or OfficeMax.

But she often has to take circuitous routes through neighborhoods to avoid high-traffic areas without sidewalks. And once when she walked along busy Waco Drive, she was amazed not only by the lack of sidewalks but the attitude of motorists.

“A friend told me: ‘I saw you walking along Waco Drive. Aren’t you afraid people will think you’re a homeless person?’ ” she recalled. “Isn’t it strange that people would automatically assume that someone would be walking because they can’t afford not to?”

Like most Texas cities, Waco can be an unfriendly place for those who travel on rubber soles rather than rubber wheels. But local transportation officials say the demand for pedestrian routes is growing, and are proposing a huge catch-up effort.

The Connections 2040 Metropolitan Transportation Plan calls for spending $32.8 million to build or repair 141 miles of sidewalk in Greater Waco during the next 25 years. That would include 98 miles in the next decade at a cost of $17 million.

That is about 3.2 percent of the $1 billion in transportation projects that the Metropolitan Planning Organization is proposing for Greater Waco in the next 25 years — by far the most ambitious pedestrian proposal it has made.

The MPO is basing its map of sidewalk improvements on input from city officials over the years.

But Waco City Council so far has paid more lip service than cold, hard cash to the goal of pedestrian safety and mobility.

The city has never had a commitment to build or maintain sidewalks on a large scale, but in recent years it has spent about $200,000 a year on sidewalk projects.

That is less than 12 percent of the MPO’s proposal of some $1.7 million a year. Based on recent experience, $200,000 isn’t enough to build one mile of sidewalk in developed parts of town.

Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. said the council appears willing to step up its funding.

“We’re going to have to do something to raise it,” he said.

Duncan said the city can’t afford to keep building roads to sprawling areas and is turning its focus to redeveloping the existing urban footprint.

“Sidewalks are a critical part of that,” he said. “It’s going to take a restructuring of our capital priorities.”

New requirements

He said he also sees a need for increasing sidewalk requirements in new subdivisions, where developers now only have to build them on major streets. Most neighborhoods built in the second half of the 20th century were built without sidewalks, and sidewalk requirements have only been in place since the 1990s. Since then, developers have built about 20 miles of sidewalks in an overall system that has about 450 miles.

Sidewalks are more expensive to build after development has happened because of the need to deal with right-of-way acquisition, tree roots, utilities and curb cuts for federally mandated wheelchair ramps.

City engineering director Octavio Garza said those variables make it difficult to estimate the costs of sidewalks. Recent city projects include a 2,093-foot sidewalk along Kendrick Lane that cost $101,777, or $48.62 per foot. Another project now underway along Webster Avenue will cost $172.60 per foot.

The city of Austin has used bond elections to expand its sidewalk network, building 53.6 miles during the last five years at a cost of $34.4 million. That is about $642,000 per mile, or $122 per foot.

The MPO plan uses a relatively optimistic cost estimate of $150,000 per mile.

Waco MPO director Chris Evilia said some federal-state grants exist for sidewalks, though the city may be able to build them at a lower cost without the requirements that come with the grant money.

Federal transit money

One possible funding source is federal transit money. The MPO and city are discussing a plan to reorganize Waco Transit along a “backbone” route that would connect to neighborhood bus routes at a series of small bus stations.

Those stations would have to be wheelchair-accessible, as would the routes approaching them. Evilia said federal grant money could help build up to 23 miles of those sidewalks.

In a discussion this month about sidewalks, Waco City Council members pondered the possibility of making sidewalk repairs when the city comes into a neighborhood to reconstruct or resurface streets. Council members were less enthusiastic about the idea of splitting the cost of sidewalk repair with residents, saying that is a burden on lower-income residents.

City staff presented the council with a new formula for prioritizing sidewalk projects, based on how well they link with schools, transit stops and parks and their location within population-dense areas such as Greater Downtown.

Ashley Thornton, who writes often about transportation for her Act Locally Waco blog, said she would love to see sidewalks everywhere. But she said her priority is to see sidewalks along major routes.

Thornton’s neighborhood, developed before World War II, has an intermittent grid of sidewalks in varying condition, some dating back to the 1920s. But she said traffic is light, and she doesn’t mind occasionally walking in the street.

“I love walking in my neighborhood,” she said. “What’s not pleasant is when you need to walk to something. Then it’s more of a trudge. . . . I would prioritize a sidewalk if there was a neighborhood where kids could potentially walk to school but they can’t because the traffic is too high. There are places where people live pretty close to work, but there’s a gap and they can’t really walk.”

Thornton, who was a leader of the Poverty Solutions Committee that laid the groundwork for the city’s Prosper Waco initiative, said sidewalks are especially important for the working poor. When people can’t walk to get around, they don’t have a way to get to work or school when the car breaks down, she said.

“We need to think of sidewalks as transportation, not just decoration,” she said.

Sidewalk necessity

Duncan said he would like local school districts to think more about pedestrian transportation when they build new schools or realign attendance zones. Schools typically don’t bus children who live within two miles of their school because of state funding rules, but often there is no safe way for children to walk to school, Duncan said.

For example, Duncan said, the city has been talking to Midway school officials about a school zone in front of the new River Valley Intermediate School that recently opened on Speegleville Road. But there is no sidewalk on the other side of the road that could get children safely home to neighborhoods on that side of the road, and officials don’t want to encourage walking there.

Duncan said Waco Independent School District’s consolidation and realignment of schools a few years ago also created challenges for the pedestrian network, with many children now farther away from their schools.

WISD board president Pat Atkins said the school district tried to ensure when drawing new attendance zones that children would not have to cross major streets.

“We did spend a lot of time looking at major thoroughfares like Valley Mills Drive, Waco Drive and Interstate 35,” he said.

But he said the process wasn’t perfect. For example, some students at Alta Vista Elementary School are separated from their homes by Interstate 35, he said.

Changing attitudes

Duncan, whose West Waco neighborhood doesn’t have sidewalks, said attitudes about sidewalks are changing.

When West Waco was developed, the car was ascendant, and sidewalks were seen more as a cost than an amenity, Duncan said.

“I don’t think developers wanted them, or that the people who were buying houses wanted them,” he said. “I don’t think there was a demand for them.”

But he said the demand for sidewalks is making a comeback, especially among the young. He said his daughter recently moved to a Fort Worth neighborhood, and sidewalks were a must for her.

Duncan said it’s time to move sidewalks up on the city’s priority list.

“It’s an uphill battle, but one I think we should take on,” he said.

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