There are 970 miles of streets in Spokane. Along them there are some 650 miles of missing sidewalks, if you consider both sides of the street. Where sidewalks exist, there often aren’t accessible ramps at intersections, and businesses and homeowners often neglect to clear them in the winter.
Advocates for people with disabilities say the condition of sidewalks is a major barrier for many who want to live more independently.
“They can be very atrocious or perfectly wonderful,” said Muriah Barela, who uses an electric wheelchair. “It’s kind of a crapshoot.”
Barela, who is an independent living adviser for the Coalition of Responsible Disabled, said some wheelchair users have gotten used to riding into streets when lack of ramps or broken sidewalks block their paths.
“There are also those such as myself who don’t go out a lot without someone else because they don’t feel safe,” said Barela, who worries she could tip and get stranded while detouring into streets, and so relies almost entirely on paratransit services.
The city is developing two plans to address the city’s sidewalk deficiencies. One is the city’s pedestrian plan, which will detail priorities for improving sidewalks as money becomes available. Another is a plan for complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act – a plan that is required but was either lost or never written. Additionally, the City Council may consider an ordinance in the coming months that would make it more difficult for the city to skip fixing sidewalks when rebuilding a street.
The Spokane City Council sparked a debate on sidewalks earlier this year when it narrowly voted to set aside 10 percent of the revenue from the city’s new vehicle tab tax to pay for sidewalks. Supporters said it was time to dedicate a source of money to the city’s neglected pedestrian routes. Opponents said there is too much backlog in street needs to earmark money for walkers.
Filling in the gaps won’t be easy. Property owners generally are responsible for sidewalks, and in many cases the city would have to purchase additional property to install them, said Dave Steele, a city planner working on the pedestrian plan. So part of the goal of the pedestrian plan is to focus on areas with the most need, such as neighborhoods near schools, parks, heavily used bus stops and commercial districts.
Eldon Brown, principal engineer of developer services who started work with the city in 1976, said missing sidewalks are the result of old rules that allowed the city engineer to determine if sidewalks would be required for certain projects.
“There were a lot of exceptions that were granted,” Brown said.
That law was tightened in the 1980s to make it difficult to grant builder exceptions for sidewalk requirements.
There are missing sidewalks throughout the city, but mostly in areas developed in the 1950s and ’60s, especially around Shadle Park and in southeast Spokane, Steele said.
Kerry Brooks, an associate professor of landscape architecture at Washington State University-Spokane, has studied sidewalks in Spokane with the help of a federal grant through the Spokane Transit Authority.
The goal was to determine barriers to people with disabilities using the bus.
“Just because you get off at an accessible bus stop, could you actually get to your destination?” said Brooks, who also is a city plan commissioner. “In the ideal world you should be able to walk everywhere there is a road and not feel in danger.”
Kitty Hennessey, who lives with her family near Ferris High School, attended an open house about the pedestrian plan this summer to express concern about the lack of sidewalks between Ferris High School and Chase Middle School, along 37th Avenue.
She called the situation “awful” and said she is concerned a student will be killed or severely injured.
“The traffic has increased in intensity and there are no sidewalks,” she said.
More controversial is the complete street ordinance. The City Plan Commission will consider it on Dec. 14.
Councilman Jon Snyder said he’s hopeful it will come to a City Council vote by the end of the year.
The proposal would in part require that infrastructure detailed in the pedestrian and bicycle plans be installed during major reconstruction projects. Any project funded by the street bond approved in 2004 would be exempt, but not projects paid by a new bond, which may go on a ballot in the next few years. Minor repaving projects would only force the city to paint stripes designating bike or pedestrian lanes, as called for in the two plans.
Councilman Bob Apple argues that a complete street rule would doom a future bond vote because citizens can afford to pay for only so much.
“The problem is, where do you stop?” Apple said.
The current bond project has generally paid only for street pavement. An exception has been to install accessible sidewalk ramps at intersections.
But Snyder said skipping sidewalks is shortsighted and financially irresponsible. A lack of sidewalks forces governments to spend more on bus services for people with disabilities, for instance. And some areas are limited in development because of missing infrastructure such as fire hydrants, he said. He added that some grants require cities to have complete street rules on the books to qualify for funding.
The current makeup of the council could shift at the end of the year. One of the biggest supporters on the council for complete streets, Councilman Richard Rush, is trailing former councilman Mike Allen by 98 votes. The race is headed for a recount. Without Rush on the council, it’s unclear a complete streets ordinance could be approved.
Mayor-elect David Condon said he needs to see the proposal before commenting. Council President-elect Ben Stuckart said he supports moving ahead before the new council is seated.
“Streets should be built for all users,” Stuckart said.
But Councilman-elect Mike Fagan said the ordinance would prohibit voters from having a choice between a tax for streets only and a tax that would include sidewalks and other amenities.
“I believe that there are a lot higher priorities in the city between now and the end of the year,” Fagan said.
Kevin Daniel, executive director of the Inland Northwest Lighthouse, a nonprofit manufacturing firm that provides jobs to people who are blind, stressed that sidewalks benefit more than just those who have disabilities.
“People being able to see Spokane as a livable city is important to all of us as we grow,” Daniel said.