On June 23, City Council moved forward with a $720 mobility bond including a proposed $55 million for sidewalks. Unfortunately, Council also passed an amendment by councilmember Gallo to take half of the sidewalk funds and to disperse the funds evenly across all council districts for Safe Routes to Schools (SRTS). As discussed previously by Brennan Griffin, the amendment has deleterious effects for pedestrian infrastructure throughout the city. Additional modifications were made at the August 11 Council meeting prior to Council voting 11-0 on 1st and 2nd readings. I will elaborate further on the effects of these funding decisions as well as to detail alternative funding scenarios.
Scenario A: Funding the Adopted Sidewalk Plan with the Mayor’s Proposed $55 million
The Sidewalk Master Plan, adopted by Council one week earlier on June 16, proposed to build out the identified high and very high priority absent sidewalks within 10 years, a proposed $250 million request. The plan includes a complicated prioritization matrix that incorporates important walkability considerations such as safety, housing density, proximity to transit, and proximity to destinations like schools, employment centers, and grocery stores, among other criteria. Council made some amendments to how absent sidewalks are prioritized, including increasing the scoring weight for schools and destinations for Austin’s elderly population.
Though the sidewalk plan as amended by Council isn’t available yet, I have performed GIS analysis based on the final prioritized weights and the new high and high priority sidewalks. The final Sidewalk Plan includes 2,642 miles of absent sidewalks, 661 of which score as high priority or very high (henceforth called high priority). At an average construction cost of $630,000 per mile of sidewalk, this represents a $1.66 billion need. To fund just the 661 miles of high priority sidewalks throughout the city will require $416.4 million.
Table 1 Total Absent Sidewalks and Amount of High and Very High Priority Sidewalks
Figure 1 City of Austin High Priority Absent Sidewalks
Of course, the plan’s stated fiscal needs doesn’t include all of the high priority absent sidewalks. It only recommends funding those high priority absent segments within ¼ mile of schools, transit, and parks. Table 2 shows there are 647 miles of absent sidewalks within these specific features, requiring $407.4 million. (Notice this is an increase from the $250 million of the initially proposed sidewalk plan. The amendments Council made to the plan increased the number of miles of absent sidewalk scoring above the high and very high point threshold.)
Table 2 Scenario A: Funding Implications for the Sidewalk Master Plan with the Mayor’s Proposal of $55 Million
The Sidewalk Master Plan put forth a path to build approximately 25% of our absent sidewalk system in a 10 year period. The Mayor’s proposal of $55 million wouldn’t provide nearly enough money to fund infrastructure crucial to fulfilling our vision as a walkable city and which complies with federal disability laws. $55 million was an phenomenally insufficient amount of money. With this level of funding, it would take 60 years to build the high priority sidewalks identified within the sidewalk plan. (All time estimates assume an 8-year bond cycle.) And, projecting the same funding into the future, it would take over 240 years to complete our entire sidewalk network. It is unconscionable to expect pedestrians to wait more than 3 lifetimes for our sidewalk network to be completed.
At least the Mayor’s proposal would have directed all of the money to the adopted sidewalk plan. With the ‘Gallo Amendment’, we wouldn’t even be completing our high priority sidewalk network within a single lifetime. The ‘Gallo Amendment’ would take vitally important sidewalk dollars and allocate them in a way that would fund lower priority sidewalks, as well as potentially funding Safe Routes to Schools infrastructure other than sidewalks. It is reasonable that we fund pedestrian infrastructure other than sidewalks, but it is unacceptable that this money come away from limited sidewalk funds.
Scenario B: The ‘Gallo Amendment’
There are significant problems with the ‘Gallo Amendment’. Currently, $27.5 million has been taken away from funding the Sidewalk Master Plan for equal district shares of Safe Routes to Schools funding. This is a highly undesirable funding option. It is my hope and desire that this can still be rectified.
During the June 23 council session wherein the mobility bond was initially advanced, Councilmember Gallo offered an amendment splitting the $55 million proposed for sidewalks. Half the money, $27.5 million, would be split evenly between districts for the Safe Routes to Schools program. The funding could be used for sidewalks or other infrastructure and would not be required to be spent according to the Sidewalk Master Plan. The remaining funds (at the time $27.5 million) would fund the Sidewalk Master Plan as adopted. Table 3 shows the fiscal impact of this funding decision. Though most council districts only gain or lose between $1-3 million according to this proposal, the collective impact is $20 million dollars away from the sidewalk plan. District 1 would receive $4.24 million less money, the greatest single district swing. It also results in almost 7 miles fewer absent sidewalks to be built in the district with the greatest share of high priority absent sidewalks. Unfortunately, despite Walk Austin communicating this fiscal loss, Council Member Houston has not proposed to reverse the ‘Gallo Amendment’. Figure 2 provides a conceptual depiction of $7 million worth of absent sidewalks which won’t be constructed resulting from the ‘Gallo Amendment’. Districts 3, 4, 7 and 9 also possess large proportions of high priority sidewalks and lose money according to the ‘Gallo Amendment’. The biggest problem with the ‘Gallo Amendment’ is it redistributes vitally important funds from districts most in need to districts with less need.
Table 3 Fiscal Impacts of the ‘Gallo Amendment’ with the Mayor’s Proposal of $55 Million
Figure 2 Depicting lost Opportunity for Constructing High Priority Sidewalks in District 1
The amendment perpetuates historical inequalities in infrastructure funding. This is true because communities of color are burdened disproportionately from our unsafe streets. With the amendment, District 8 could, in this one bond cycle, build all of its high priority absent sidewalks nearby schools, transit, and parks. District 1, on the other hand, with significantly more high priority sidewalks, would require 85 years. The utility of distributing funds according to the sidewalk plan is every district would complete its network at the same pace. To the councilmembers who voted for the amendment, I agree there are pedestrian needs worthy of being funded in your districts. I do not believe the solution is to deprive other districts of funds that would have been allocated according to objective criteria.
One stated rationale for the amendment to redirect bond funds is the perception that the sidewalk plan prioritizes some districts over others. Well, yes, it does. This is precisely because the pedestrian needs of our community aren’t equal. Just as the bicycle plan prioritizes where facilities are most needed, and just as we are planning to fund corridor and highway projects for drivers where automobile infrastructure is most desired, a pedestrian system must focus its resources where it makes sense. To distribute funds evenly between districts misses the point entirely. Of course it’s true that there is insufficient pedestrian infrastructure and too little money proposed. But that is easily remedied.
A second problem with the ‘Gallo Amendment’ is it undermines the planning process. The Sidewalk Master Plan was completed with extensive public input, and staff and consultant expertise. It is problematic that City Council should pursue funding options that run counter to adopted plans. Such decisions undermine the planning process and dismisses the significant time and effort of the citizens that participated in the process. One has to wonder, too, if Council had issue with the plan, why adopt it? Another expressed concern with the sidewalk plan was that it insufficiently engaged the community. The Capital Metro quarter-cent sales tax dollars which were dispersed between council districts is cited as an example of how the community can engage directly in deciding how to spend public resources. I would point out that this is not incompatible with the sidewalk plan. Within the many millions of dollars of high priority absent sidewalks, staff can engage the community to further refine those priorities. To effectively dismiss the sidewalk plan – a plan which is a national model – in favor of ad hoc funding decisions is counterproductive.
A third problem with the ‘Gallo Amendment’ is that it directs too large of a share of limited sidewalk dollars to Safe Routes to Schools. Safe Routes to Schools is a program which was first federally funded in 2005. Mobility and safety are its primary tenets, aiming to encourage active commuting habits for children. The program aims to address increasing obesity rates and decreasing rates of walking and bicycling to school by providing infrastructure around schools. It is a laudable goal. However, we must critically evaluate the implications for this approach. Elementary school age children in Austin make up less than 10% of our total population. When one factors that less than 15% of school age children walk to school, we are intentionally dedicating nearly $30 million for approximately one percent of our population. The one or two trips per day elementary school students take to school represents a very small part of our city’s pedestrian mobility needs.
Some may argue that funding Safe Routes to Schools benefits individuals other than school-age children. This may be true in many instances. It is precisely why the sidewalk plan already factors schools into its formula for prioritizing construction of absent sidewalks. If schools exist in areas where other people would use the sidewalk system, and use it in great amounts, these absent sidewalks would score high. If an adult is walking to work in an area around a school, or grocery shopping near a school, these are good systems to fund as they are used by more people. But using schools as the sole factor for funding decisions makes little sense. In some instances, building sidewalks nearby schools would serve few others than the children walking to and from school. This has to do with the necessary features to produce walkable environments. In suburban contexts with low-density single family housing, how many students can we expect to live within walking distance to schools? How many people can we expect to be walking to work (without employment centers), or to go shopping (without retail), or to catch a bus (without transit)?
It is a tenuous argument to suggest that building sidewalks will increase walking rates among school-age children. Academic research has established that distance and real or perceived safety issues are the greatest factors influencing participation in Safe Routes to Schools programs. Given Austin’s low housing density and high fatality rates (as well as major arterial streets within close proximity of schools), it is doubtful that the mere presence of a sidewalk will incentivize children to walk to school (or, more precisely, to encourage parents to allow their children to walk to school).
Safety is the other argument for funding Safe Routes to Schools. Austin recently completed our Vision Zero Action Plan which identifies citywide safety issues and needs. Safe Routes to Schools would fund exclusively pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure improvements, and within the area immediately around elementary schools. Pedestrian and bicycle deaths within one-quarter mile of all schools make up less than 11% of all traffic deaths in Austin (even less for pedestrian and bicycle deaths around elementary schools which are the focus of Safe Routes to Schools Programs). This is likely due in part to the fact that elementary schools are often within residential neighborhoods with lower posted speed limits and that receive greater traffic enforcement efforts.
In order to maximize the safety benefits for funds dedicated to Safe Routes to Schools, the Safe Routes to Schools program should provide safe routes for at least ½ mile around schools. Expanding the focus increases the share of pedestrian and bicycle deaths. Still, the expanded geography would account for less than one-quarter of all traffic fatalities in Austin. Figures 3 and 4 compare the pedestrian and bicycle deaths within ½ mile of schools with all traffic deaths.
Figure 3 Austin Pedestrian and Bicycle Deaths 2010-2014 within ½ Mile of Schools
Figure 4 All Traffic Deaths in Austin 2010-2014 within ½ Mile of Schools
Additionally, very few traffic deaths surrounding schools are actually children. This is significant because many Safe Routes to Schools solutions are constrained by school hours and the school calendar. If Safe Routes to Schools funding is to benefit everyone who is around schools, the solutions must work for everyone. For instance, lower speed limits or flashing yellow lights which improve safety are only in effect during school hours. Crossing guards, too, are only in place for the hours immediately before and after school. In order to maximize the safety benefits for Safe Routes to Schools funds, any non-sidewalk infrastructure must be a permanent solution and be operational 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Of course, two of the above examples are not capital improvements. This is a final critique against allocating funds to Safe Routes to Schools: Austin’s Safe Routes to Schools program has no identified capital needs, nor an established criteria for identifying such needs. Safe Routes to Schools is a nascent program that his historically focused on programming (crossing guards) and it is for this reason that $27.5 million is too much money for a program inherently limited in its geographic and demographic focus, and possessing inherently limited mobility and safety benefits. It is illustrative to note the difference in funding being allocated to the Vision Zero program which serves the entire geography of the city and all ages, uses safety need as its primary criteria for allocating resources, and has identified capital needs. Unfortunately, Vision Zero was only allocated $15 million in bond dollars.
Scenario C: ‘Gallo Amendment’ Improvement, Option 1 Assuming $55 Million
As detailed previously, the problem with the ‘Gallo Amendment’ is that it shifts bond dollars from the sidewalk plan and between council districts ostensibly to serve mobility and safety considerations of Safe Routes to Schools. Unfortunately, dividing the money evenly between council districts fails to achieve these intended aims. Scenario C was devised when $55 million was the expected funds for sidewalks.
If the amendment cannot be reduced in the amount for Safe Routes to Schools, then the funds should at least be allocated according to safety need.
Though Scenario C retains the $27.5 million for Safe Routes to Schools, the funds are directed in a way that at least acknowledges the greater safety needs of certain council districts. Table 4 demonstrates the difference of funding scenarios between the ‘Gallo Amendment’ in current form to the same funds distributed according to the proportion of pedestrian and bicyclists in each district that die within one-half mile of schools. Due to the fact that there are greater pedestrian and bicycle deaths in East Austin, a council district approach to Safe Routes to Schools funding ironically prevents allocation of funds that could protect children.
Table 4 Contrasting $27.5 million between Safe Routes to Schools by Equal Shares versus by Safety Need
It is preferable to direct all allocated bond dollars for sidewalk/pedestrian needs to the sidewalk plan, as adopted. Additional safety considerations and non-sidewalk needs should be addressed in other ways. For instance, traffic safety needs should be addressed through the Vision Zero program. It is more appropriate to address safety needs at the scale of the city, not at the scale of council districts.
Scenario D: ‘Gallo Amendment’ Improvement, Option 2
Scenario D still provides bond dollars for the Safe Routes to Schools program. But, the funding level is reduced from $27.5 million to $15 million. This is due to the ability to provide for mobility and safety needs more effectively otherwise, and the fact that Safe Routes to Schools is a nascent program unprepared to spend nearly $30 million in bond resources.
Further, the funds are not divided equally between districts, but according to the proportion of pedestrian and bicycle deaths within ½ mile to schools. Table 5 demonstrates an increase in funds for Central and East Austin districts.
Scenario E: Additional Funds Added by Council August 11
As a result of the ‘Gallo Amendment’, Walk Austin sought to demonstrate the financial impacts to Council offices leading up to August 11. Unfortunately, the optimal solutions were not pursued by Council. Instead of directing Safe Routes to Schools funds in a way that prioritizes safety (Scenario C) or which reduced the dollar amount as well as prioritizing safety (Scenario D), the ‘Gallo Amendment’ has remained intact.
Responding to concerns expressed by Council member Houston regarding lost sidewalk dollars, Council opted to increase the funds going toward the Sidewalk Master Plan by $10 million. $6 million came from small road projects, and $4 million came out of the $30 million slated to go to urban trails. It is unfortunate that $4 million in urban trail funds were lost. These are facilities which benefit pedestrians, too, and cannot be seen as a pure increase in pedestrian funds within the bond proposal.
At present, the sidewalk component of the bond proposal stands at $65 million. $27.5 million would be directed to the Safe Routes to Schools program divided equally between council districts, and $37.5 million would fund the Sidewalk Master Plan as adopted. Table 6 shows the anticipated district funds according to this scenario. As expected, simply increasing the sidewalk funds helps to hide the fiscal impact of the ‘Gallo Amendment’. Of course, the districts with more high priority sidewalks would fare even better if Safe Routes to Schools funds were decreased and prioritized by need.
Table 6 Scenario E: Anticipated Sidewalk Funds with ‘Gallo Amendment’ Intact
Scenario F: Additional Funds with Modified Safe Routes to Schools
Scenario F demonstrates the possible sidewalk and Safe Routes to Schools funds per district that could be achieved by modifying the Safe Routes to Schools allocations. Like Scenario D, the $27.5 Safe Routes to Schools achieved through the ‘Gallo Amendment’ is reduced to $15 million. The funds are then distributed across the city according to share of pedestrian and bicycle deaths within ½ mile of schools.
Table 7 Scenario F: Additional Funds with Modified Safe Routes to Schools Allocation
Scenario G: Walk Austin’s Preferred Scenario
The last scenario maintains elements from several of the previous funding scenarios and asks for additional bond dollars for sidewalk and pedestrian infrastructure. It maintains the $15 million in Safe Routes to Schools funds to be distributed according to need because, though a young program with some inherent limitations, Safe Routes to Schools has the potential to instill important health and transportation practices within our youth. Safe Routes to Schools can also complement other traffic safety initiatives.
Scenario G provides $85 million for the sidewalk plan (up from $37.5 million) and creates a $20 million category for safe pedestrian crossings such as Pedestrian Hybrid Beacons (PHBs). (PHBs cost an average of $75,000 and represent a significantly underfunded capital need.)
This brings the total sidewalk and pedestrian allocations to $120 million. Table 7 demonstrates each district’s share according to this scenario.
Table 8 Scenario G: Walk Austin’s Preferred Scenario
Comparison of Funding Scenarios
Lastly, in order to provide an overview of the possible funding options, Table 8 provides a comparison of the various funding options. Scenario E is the current and most likely Council product. However, I hope Council will see the superiority of Scenario F with the same $65 million in sidewalk dollars. And, with small concessions from road projects, Council could achieve Scenario G, Walk Austin’s ‘Go Big or Go Home’ proposal.
Table 9 Comparison of Sidewalk Bond Funding Scenarios