Our sidewalks are in good condition!??

At the June 7, 2023 Bloomington City Council meeting, the Director of Public Works delivered a report on the condition of streets and sidewalks. The council relies on reports from department heads when overseeing the budget, but Director Adam Wason’s report seemed designed to mislead them into believing that our sidewalks do not need resources.

He started with this slide, which he has used before. Obviously, there isn’t more sidewalk than street in Bloomington, so what’s going on? Well, this year he finally used the correct phrase “center-line miles” when describing the street mileage. So two or more lanes of traffic are only counted as one center-line, and you would hope to see twice as many miles of sidewalk, so that there is sidewalk on both sides of that center line. This slide shows that we have an enormous deficit of missing sidewalks. We have just over half the amount of sidewalk that we need to to have a sidewalk on both sides of the street.

Not every street needs sidewalk on both sides, but there are debilitating gaps even on our busiest streets.

Then he presented this slide with fantastic made-up numbers, which I corrected with more plausible ones. The irony is, the contractor that prepared the report actually provided numbers for two of those values. There was no reason to make up figures. But, again, the important part is that there’s about 5 times as much street area as sidewalk area. The suggestion that there is more sidewalk than street is ridiculous and false.

But if it was just those two slides, I wouldn’t even bother to write about it. Hold onto your hats:

This slide is astonishing. Doing the math, it says that 95% of our sidewalks are in good condition! Do you walk in Bloomington? Do you believe that 95% of our sidewalks are in good condition?

While this slide was up, Director Wason said, “Our sidewalks community wide are in good condition and I think that’s something we should all be proud of.” We should be proud of it if it’s true!

When you’re out walking and see a giant hole in the sidewalk, you can go look on this interactive map and the odds are good that you will find your failing sidewalk rated “green good condition.”

To use the interactive map, disable the street condition layer and then it just shows sidewalk / sidepath / curb ramp condition. If you click on a segment and then click “More info” in the pop-up, then it will show you a photo from a dash-cam. In that photo, it is generally impossible to really see the sidewalk. Giant holes show up as only a vague shadow. Surely that’s not what they used to evaluate the sidewalks? Surely they conducted some sort of study?

Nope! You can look for yourself in the Board of Public Works Sep 28, 2021 packet. Starting on page 253 there is a contract with Infrastructure Management Service. The exciting part is on page 262, where they prepared two quotes for us. The larger quote, $333,507, comes with “Sidewalk Surface Tester (SST)”. IMS does have a product that will study the surface of our sidewalks. But, instead, the city opted for the $234,580 contract that only covers “Roadway Surface Tester (RST)”. IMS wasn’t paid to study our sidewalk condition!

So how did they come up with 95% of sidewalks in good condition? The contract says, “Sidewalk condition attribute will be visually rated.” So it turns out, that’s exactly what they did. They took one photo per block from the dashboard of a van, and if that photo doesn’t show the sidewalk well enough to tell that it’s crumbling then they marked it “good” on the map.

If sidewalks look good from the driver’s seat of a car, then they’re good enough for Bloomington Department of Public Works.

Public Works knew all along that they hadn’t paid for a sidewalk condition study. Indeed, in a response to questions from Dave Askins of the B Square Bulletin, a staff member says, “the Street Division did not expect precise sidewalk condition metrics as part of this report. … The contractor met the scope of work requirements as outlined in the original contract, so [re-doing the work] will not be necessary.”

They knew this data wasn’t any good, so why present it?

Director Wason’s purpose at the council that night was to justify an upcoming request to double the streets maintenance budget. And, let’s be clear, our streets need this money. Streets are enormously expensive. There is no limit to how much money they can suck up. When people describe our transportation network as “unsustainable,” it’s not just tree-hugging: this mode of development struggles to generate enough tax revenue to sustain its own maintenance needs. There are simply too many miles of street for too small a number of residents.

But as part of making that case for street maintenance, he thought it was prudent to make a case against sidewalk maintenance.

The worst part is, even the truth about sidewalk pavement condition would be a distraction. Our sidewalks are crumbling, but that’s not the biggest maintenance challenge we face. The immediate struggle is keeping them clear of obstructions from vegetation, construction, and parked cars. And parked scooters! These are huge and difficult tasks. Given the pittance of money that they allocate to this immense challenge, it is no wonder that Public Works is struggling to fulfill their responsibility to our city’s pedestrians.

That’s why it’s so damaging when the Director of Public Works comes to the council with disinformation. Our city’s transportation plan says that we will prioritize pedestrians over motorists in infrastructure decisions, but Director Wason is using disinformation to try to more deeply entrench the deep imbalance between street and sidewalk funding.

Hearing from department heads should make us smarter about our city.

See also: Bloomington gets sidewalk report: Did choice of cheaper method mean inflated condition ratings? from the B Square Bulletin.