City admits inability to repair sidewalks without citizens’ help
In 1989 the Salem City Council made a landmark decision to assume responsibility for repairing broken sidewalks caused by normal deterioration and public street trees. Of the 12 cities in Oregon with populations greater than 40,000, only Salem has assumed this burden. It was an ambitious plan that might have worked, but immediately two things happened.

First, the City restructured its financing from levies to a general tax base, eliminating the authority to place a street/sidewalk levy on the ballot, thereby making sidewalks dependent on the general fund. At the same time, Oregon passed a law limiting increases in property taxes, thus restraining growth of the general fund. As things stand now, sidewalks are repaired almost exclusively from gas tax revenue, and funds are insufficient. Currently more than 4,000 sidewalk locations are awaiting repair by the City, with an estimated cost of $3.5 million. The annual budget allocation for sidewalks is about $26,000, enough to repair about 30 of the 4,000 damaged areas.
Ten years after assuming responsibility for sidewalk maintenance, yet lacking the resources to follow through, Public Works proposed a sidewalk fee of $2.43 tagged to residents’ water bills. When the City Council adopted the proposal in July 2002, enraged citizens got a referendum on the May 2003 ballot and overwhelmingly defeated the sidewalk fee. Since then, broken sidewalks have been marked with hazard cones, but few have been repaired.

So who is responsible for repairing Salem’s existing sidewalks? Historically, property owners have been required to maintain their sidewalks and have been held liable for safety. In the 1980s residents began to grumble that the majority of sidewalk damage was caused by roots of trees in the public right-of-way between sidewalks and streets — trees owned by the City. The rumblings resulted in a significant shift in responsibility for sidewalk maintenance to the City.

The latest attempt to tackle the problem was a series of presentations by Public Works to Salem’s neighborhood associations. Held in the spring and fall of 2005, these meetings explored the feasibility of reverting back to homeowner responsibility for sidewalk repair. Three understandings were reached: (1) the need is immediate and extensive, (2) property owners will need financial help, and (3) a long-term solution for street tree root damage must be found. Public Works intends to present a report and recommendation to the City Council this fall, with the goal of having a sidewalk program in place by January 2007.

Homeowner, the ball is about to land back in your court.

In addition to disrepair, City of Salem streets also are missing more than 300 miles of sidewalks. That’s enough pavement to walk from here to Idaho. Most of these streets without sidewalks were annexed by Salem in the 1960s and 1970s, and were built when the county did not require sidewalks. Today the cost of materials and labor to construct sidewalks is $35 for each 5-foot slab of concrete, which translates to $57 million. But sidewalks can’t just be slapped down in the grass next to the road. Before sidewalks can be constructed, streets must be “improved” with curbs, storm drainage, proper pavement, and lighting, which increases the total to $230 million.

The good news is, the problem isn’t growing. For the past 30 years new sidewalks have been required with all building construction, subdivision development, and publicly funded street improvements. But what about the 300-mile backlog?

Although sidewalk construction has always been the duty of abutting property owners, projects to roll out missing sidewalks have been sporadic and funding has been unreliable — various combinations of federal and state grants, tax levies, along with assessments of homeowners have fallen short. In the late 1960s and again in the mid 1980s, sidewalk construction programs were started and stopped. The last initiative was the 1995 Pedestrian Safety Bond which improved major streets and sidewalks near schools. Since then, no missing sidewalks have been built.