Easing way for foot traffic

City sidewalk repair blitz begins

August 01, 2008|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

Hoping to clear a waiting list for sidewalk repairs that stretches back four years, Baltimore officials said today they will focus more attention - and an additional $2 million - on smoothing the way for foot traffic.

City transportation contractors will increase by two-thirds the number of sidewalk repairs completed in the city in this year, resurfacing nearly 650,000 square feet of cracked, washed out and uneven walkways.

"We get a lot of service calls for our sidewalks and our streets," Mayor Sheila Dixon said yesterday. "Some people think that we only drive cars in this city. But more and more people are walking."

Dixon's push on the sidewalks comes a year after the city Department of Transportation increased its budget for road improvements by about 70 percent - an effort paid for largely with bonds - and added more than 20 miles of bike lanes.

Baltimore plans to resurface 200 lane-miles of streets this year, a slight increase over last year and more than double what was paved in 2006, Dixon has said.

City Councilman James B. Kraft, who represents Southeast Baltimore, said fixing up sidewalks is a small thing the city can do to improve quality of life and make neighborhoods more attractive to pedestrians.

Dixon pointed to a recent ranking by a Seattle-based Web site called Walk Score that deemed Baltimore the 12th-most-walkable city in the country. The site noted Federal Hill, Fells Point and the Inner Harbor as particularly walkable.

"People look in neighborhoods. They see how they are, they see how they feel," Kraft said. "When they're clean and green, people want to stay there. They want to move there."

In all, there are 3,600 miles of sidewalk in Baltimore, and a typical blocklong stretch can last 15 to 20 years.

Tree roots and weeds that grow up between cracks in the pavement can hasten a sidewalk's deterioration.

City Hall pays for repairs if damage is caused by tree roots, water meters or utility poles.

In the 2008 fiscal year, which ended in June, the city repaired sidewalks in 2,700 locations at a cost of $2.5 million.

For the fiscal year that will end next June, the city has set aside $4.5 million and hopes to repair 4,500 locations.

If damage is triggered by normal wear and tear, property owners must foot the bill - at $6.50 a square foot.

If the entire sidewalk in front of a house must be replaced, the job can quickly add up to hundreds of dollars.

But the more pervasive problem many neighborhood leaders have faced is getting the city to respond quickly to requests for sidewalk repairs.

City transportation officials said they hope to eliminate the backlog in five years.

"I think it's a great idea if they can get it done quicker and do quality work on the streets and the sidewalks," said Susan Thompson, president of the Hampstead Hill Association south of Patterson Park.

Dixon said city sidewalk projects, and their status, will be placed on the city transportation department's Internet site.

Kraft said the best way residents can reduce the workload for sidewalk crews - most of whom are contractors - is to uproot weeds that grow up between the cracks. "If you pull them out, it's highly unlikely we're going to have to come back and fix that sidewalk for you," he said. In addition to borrowing more money for construction projects around the city, the Dixon administration has developed a flair for promoting those efforts. The city has dubbed its new project the "Sidewalk Sam" campaign.

The promotion, which will be carried on signs at construction sites, is named after 4-month-old Samson, the baby elephant at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. The signs feature a picture of an elephant.

"The role and responsibility of government is to take care of really basic, fundamental needs," Dixon said.


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