An Open Letter to Barack Obama on Behalf of Sidewalks

Michael Ronkin is the former Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Mr. President-elect

Thank you for taking the time to listen to suggestions on how best to invest in our infrastructure. You have heard from many about repairing bridges and highways. You have been receiving many “shovel-ready” wish lists of projects. Big highway projects are rarely shovel-ready; there will always be legitimate environmental and political hurdles to overcome, requiring robust public debate.

However, there are many small-scale projects that require little or no red tape, provide tremendous benefit/cost, and create the greatest number of local jobs per dollar spent: sidewalk repair, infill and construction, and bringing existing sidewalks up to ADA compliance. Sidewalk projects provide many economic benefits for communities large and small:

  • Most of the sidewalk cost is labor (60-80%);
  • The labor force is usually local; the bulk of the materials (sand and gravel) can be found locally too;
  • The wages are living wages, but not too high for financially strapped communities;
  • The minimal amount of design needed can be done in-house or by small local engineering firms.
  • Local small contractors can perform the work;
  • This provides work for small contractors hurt by the housing downturn, as they are doing less small concrete work for house foundations, driveways etc.;
  • These are opportunities to make good use of existing incentive programs such as Emerging Small Businesses, Disadvantaged Business Enterprises, Minority-Owned Businesses;
  • But most important are the positive results for the community:

    Sidewalks improve property values, make it easier to walk for short local trips, reduce municipal liability for trip and fall injuries, and help make the transportation system accessible to all pedestrians, including those the Americans with Disabilities Act was intended to help bring into the mainstream.

The backlog of sidewalk infill and repair is huge in most cities. When I worked as Pedestrian and Bicycle Program Manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation, I managed a small grant program (approximately $3,000,000/year statewide) that funded sidewalk infill projects. Every year we had to turn away many worthy applicants, as the requests exceeded available funds at a 5:1 ratio.

Thank you,

Michael Ronkin
Designing Streets for Pedestrians and Bicyclists LLC
1602 Center St NE
Salem OR 97301

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