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Missoula sidewalk

Red paint warns pedestrians of an upheaval in a sidewalk on Edith Street in Missoula's Slant Street area between Brooks Street and Stephens Avenue in November 2018. 

Missoula homeowners were shocked to receive sky-high bills for installing or improving sidewalks adjacent to their property. They took their complaints to City Council, which set about revising municipal sidewalk policies, with an eye toward reducing the sticker shock.

It happened just a few weeks ago, but it also happened a dozen years ago, in 2006. And again, in 2012. Truly, the high cost of sidewalks is not a new or unexpected issue in Missoula. Given the ever-increasing concern about affordable housing in Missoula, the city’s leaders are long overdue to come up with a better way of paying for sidewalks.

In 2006, city residents were astounded when some homeowners were assessed more than $20,000 for new sidewalks. John Engen was serving his first year as mayor of Missoula when the sidewalk issue exploded, and in the years since the city has continued to wrestle with different potential solutions, only to end up where we are now: more than a dozen homeowners were recently hit with bills in excess of $10,000. Dozens more in the Slant Streets neighborhood received bills in late November wildly different from the original estimates they were provided less than a year ago.

None of this is in keeping with the city’s stated commitment to affordable housing.

Mayor Engen deserves kudos for canceling this pricey sidewalk program in the wake of public outcry. At last Wednesday’s Public Works committee meeting, he asked some very good questions: “What is a replacement project? What are the merits of replacement? What are our standards? We may find that the standards are exactly as they ought to be. Then the question becomes how do we pay for this?”

These are questions, however, that should have been asked — and answered — before Missoula residents were hit with heartburn-inducing bills for sidewalks. The city should not have allowed this issue to repeatedly rise to crisis levels before reacting. 

Before 2006, individual property owners were expected to pay for sidewalks entirely on their own. As prices for labor and construction increased and made this less feasible, especially for folks living on corner lots, the city tried to help by offering monthly payments and extended payment plans, promising to honor original estimates when actual costs overran them, and establishing a program that allowed homeowners to defer payment until the sale of their home.

In 2012, city councilors also recommended, but the county ultimately rejected, the idea of asking voters to weigh in on a county-wide fuel tax that would have raised money to help pay for sidewalks. At 2 cents per gallon, the tax was expected to raise about $800,000 a year.

That same year, city councilors settled on a payment formula that divides the costs between the city and property owners. Last year, city council again reviewed the policy. Now, the city aims to cover 70 percent of the costs and property owners pick up 30 percent. Sounds pretty reasonable, right? Additionally, the city offers subsidies based on need and has succeeded in securing grants to provide further relief.

Yet this still leaves some homeowners facing sidewalk bills high enough to drive them out of their homes. The affordability of their housing should not decrease in order to provide public infrastructure that benefits the entire city. True, sidewalks do increase the value of a home, and the people who live in those homes will get the most use out of adjacent sidewalks, so it makes sense for them to assume some portion of the costs. 

That doesn’t mean, however, that every property in Missoula should have a sidewalk. The city ought to have, and is currently working on, a comprehensive plan that prioritizes neighborhoods and individual properties according to highest foot traffic and greatest need. Any necessary sidewalk work should concentrate on this top-priority zone. Second-tier neighborhoods should be opportunity zones where, when construction is already planned, the city can piggyback on street and sewer projects to pitch in for sidewalks at a reduced cost.

It’s true that this means third tier neighborhoods may never see sidewalks under this system. However, any neighborhood that feels shorted ought to have the ability to petition to form a sidewalk special improvement district — an SSID — that would split the costs between the city and property owners in the district.

Of course, the city should make sure it is not paying top dollar for any of this. Missoulians want basic, quality sidewalks that will last a long time – no “extras,” please. And developers should of course be expected to continue paying for sidewalks adjacent to their property, as well as for connections to nearby sidewalks, any time they plan a new real estate project.

All along the way, the city must continue to seek state and federal grants, Americans with Disabilities Act and other assistance to help lower the burden on local taxpayers. 

And it should commit to doing a better job of communicating with affected homeowners. It should be able to provide a breakdown of costs for labor and materials to homeowners along with their estimates, and be prepared to justify any major discrepancies between estimated and actual sidewalk costs

Like roads, bike lanes and trails, sidewalks are an important part of Missoula’s public transportation infrastructure. They are needed for safety and accessibility, most importantly, but they also an amenity that makes Missoula a more pleasant place to commute.

But the need for sidewalks must also be balanced against the need to improve housing affordability. They should never price anyone out of their home.

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