For Smaller Towns, Paying for Sidewalks Isn't Always Simple

Missoula considers a new approach to funding walkability as demand grows

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Reuters

For decades, the city of Missoula, Mont., had a pretty simple rule concerning sidewalks: if you want one, you pay for it. Property owners would be assessed the construction fee of building sidewalk in front of their property, which in Missoula’s early days was not very common. But as the city has grown and the community has called for a more walkable public realm, relying on property owners to cough up the thousands of dollars to build publicly accessible sidewalks has become less than ideal. So city leaders are considering a new process that would shift much of the cost to the taxpayers of the city at large.

“We want to have accessible streets that are safe to drive, walk, and bike on,” says Steve King, director of Missoula’s Public Works Department. He says some of the city’s streets can have a broken teeth sort of look, with sidewalks in front of some houses, but none right next door. But that’s gradually changing. The city passed a Complete Streets Resolution in 2009 that calls for the creation of walkable streets, complete with sidewalks and curb cuts. In recent years, the policy of making property owners bear the costs of bringing that policy into reality has become a major concern. “It’s something that’s become a hot topic around Montana.”

He says it’s an established precedent in state and city law that construction of sidewalk improvements be assessed to adjacent property owners, which means that many of the city’s asphalt roads are flanked by gravel shoulders that serve as parking areas and walking areas.

“Much of our city was developed when it was unincorporated,” King says. There were few sidewalks in many areas, and a lot of properties didn’t event have water hookups. Over the last 20 years, the city has annexed thousands of those properties, growing from 40,000 people to about 70,000. King says that building a sidewalk from scratch in front of a property commonly runs about $5,000 for a 50- or 60-foot street frontage. For corner properties, the assessment can run over $10,000. These costs, especially during tough economic times, have become harder and harder for locals to swallow.

Recognizing the growing unease, city leaders formed a subcommittee in September to figure out how to reshape the process to align with the city’s Complete Streets Resolution, as well as a draft sidewalk master plan. The subcommittee has developed a few ideas for changing up the funding mechanism behind the city’s sidewalks that will spread their costs more widely among residents, as The Missoulian reports.

“We’re moving towards a more community-based shared approach,” says King.

King says the most likely option will be a funding mechanism that requires some contribution from the property owner but which will get the bulk of its funding through taxes. The homeowner would pay 30 percent of the cost and the city would cover 70 percent, according to King. Property owners’ contributions would be capped at $2,000 and the city would pay any excess, up to $15,000. Paying $2,000 for a sidewalk that would currently cost upwards of $10,000 is likely to be an attractive concept to property owners.

A citywide property tax assessment would be levied – paid for by people in town where sidewalks are more common and more useful, and also by people who live farther out of town in sparsely populated mountainous areas where sidewalks aren’t exactly in high demand. King says this is likely to cause some concern in Missoula, where residents are typically very politically active.

“We will hear from them,” King says. But he counters that even if residents don’t have a sidewalk built in front of their property up in the mountains, they’ll still be able to enjoy the indirect benefit of using sidewalks when they come into town.

He says the city currently dedicates about $800,000 of its $40 million budget to sidewalk building and repair each year, and that the same amount would be spent under this potential new plan.

Nothing has been ironed out yet. The subcommittee will be presenting its ideas for creating a taxing authority at the city council meeting today. King says there’s a lot of support for changing the way sidewalk creation is handled in the city, and that the new proposal could be in place by this summer. 

“I think it’s got legs,” King says.

And if the city council agrees, Missoula residents could be paying a lot less to walk around their city.

Photo credit: George Frey / Reuters

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.