Denver Council Narrows the Options to Fund a Citywide Sidewalk Network

Sheridan Boulevard, where speeding trucks whisk by an overgrown dirt path instead of a sidewalk. Photo: David Sachs
Sheridan Boulevard, where speeding trucks whisk by an overgrown dirt path instead of a sidewalk. Photo: David Sachs

A group of Denver City Council members is getting closer to finalizing a proposal to patch up the city’s disconnected and dilapidated sidewalk network with a reliable, long-term funding source.

Currently, Denverites are supposed maintain the public sidewalks in front of their private property. But the rules are not well-enforced, and not every property owner is in a financial position to cover these costs. The result is a sidewalk network in poor condition with huge gaps. More than a quarter of Denver’s streets are missing sidewalks.

To fix the situation, Denver needs to replace its piecemeal approach with a citywide strategy. Several funding options are on the table, but the leading contender is to have property owners opt in to a fee system, possibly based on the size of a property’s frontage, said Councilman Paul Kashmann, head of the Sidewalk Working Group that met yesterday.

The fees would be pooled into a fund for citywide sidewalk maintenance and construction. Property owners who opt out would not have access to those funds, and would have to pay thousands out-of-pocket when their sidewalks needed replacing or repair work. It’s still not clear how the fee would be set or how much it would raise.

Specifics are still in development, and if this is the funding option that moves forward, some questions need answering. For instance, if large numbers of property owners opt out, that could substantially undermine the goal of a cohesive citywide sidewalk network.

An optional fee would have to be paired with “an aggressive enforcement program,” so there’s incentive to buy in, said WalkDenver Policy Director Jill Locantore. “We’re looking for a comprehensive solution and we’re open to exploring all these different strategies, but the devil’s in the details… The fact they’re even considering this is a step in the right direction.”

Denver Public Works estimates it would cost $475 million to bring the city’s sidewalk network up to snuff, while WalkDenver, a major force behind the sidewalk initiative, puts that number closer to $600 million. That’s just for concrete — Kashmann thinks the total figure, once you account for taking care of drainage and other essentials, is much higher.

“I figure it’s a billion dollar program when you get down to it, to do everything we want to do,” he said. “The ongoing funding solution is just essential.”

The Sidewalk Working Group, along with Mayor Michael Hancock’s office, may also establish a policy to help low-income property owners pay for sidewalks, so that poorer neighborhoods aren’t left behind when it comes to decent walking infrastructure. Council reps said they and the mayor’s office will meet at the end of the month to begin official talks.

Council members agree that a long-term sidewalk program is the goal. But they’re also hopeful that sidewalks get a one-time cash injection from Denver’s bond initiative next year. A broader “mobility package” on the ballot — maybe in the form of a special tax to improve transit, biking, and walking — could offer a boost as well.

“I would guess that the [Hancock] administration’s choice is gonna be a broader package, which is fine with me as long as there is clear set-aside for sidewalks and crosswalks, that this is not just a pot of money and we’re gonna stir it up and taste it later,” Kashmann said.

Separately, the Hancock administration’s “mobility working group” is drafting a proposal that recommends spending $10 million on sidewalks annually, starting in 2018, said Transportation and Mobility Director Crissy Fanganello.

“Just some conversations I’ve had with the mayor, just chats, I believe that he’s seeing the light,” Kashmann said. “Now as with any agenda you have in the city, you have so many competing agendas, you really need to keep your shoulder to the wheel so that it doesn’t stall.”