POSTED ON OCTOBER 23, 2013:
Walk the Vote
What it takes to make pathways for pedestrians
Want the city to put in a sidewalk in front of your house?
You may be out of luck, according to one transportation expert.
"When you think about the cost-benefits to sidewalks, you really have to think about how many people you're connecting," said James Wagner, transportation projects coordinator for the Indian Nations Council of Governments.
That means that "neighborhood streets, if they don't have sidewalks, they likely never will," Wagner said, citing cost as a major factor, along with some homeowners' unwillingness to part with a portion of their yard.
But there are exceptions, of course -- like when there's a need to create a walking path to a school.
The city has set aside approximately $4.2 million in the Improve Our Tulsa tax proposal to implement upgrades recommended by the yet-to-be started bicycle and pedestrian master plan.
Depending on how you parse different projects in the $918.7 million sales tax extension and bond package -- to be decided upon by voters Nov. 12 -- roughly $23.4 million, including the $4.2 million in master plan implementation, will go directly towards efforts to make the city more pedestrian-friendly.
That's not the total picture, however. Some new sidewalks will result from the more than $250 million designated for upgrading heavily-trafficked city streets and also widening some roads.
"There's a misconception that when we widen a roadway, all we're doing it for is automobiles. It's a multi-modal improvement," said Brent Stout, the city's lead engineer for project planning and coordinator for transportation.
So if a sidewalk isn't there, one will be put in, he said -- with the exception being the widening of Riverside Drive near the anticipated new park, A Gathering Place for Tulsa, which Stout called "kind of a special case." Full details of that project have yet to be worked out, he said.
Some critics have complained about the cost of street widening in the Improve Our Tulsa proposal. For example, widening two stretches of S. Yale Avenue -- from E. 81st to E. 91st streets and also from E. 96th to E. 101st streets -- will cost $48.25 million.
Other rehabilitation projects also may bring sidewalk improvements, at least for those major arterial streets, Stout said.
Chris Cox, the city's transportation rehabilitation manager, also said the city takes "the right-of-way to right-of-way approach" when rehabilitating arterial streets.
"We look to see not only our utility and infrastructure needs, but also our sidewalk needs," Cox said.
This requires studying more than traffic patterns.
"We have to look at the big picture of the rehabilitation. Can we physically put sidewalks on one side or the other? And frankly, in some situations, we can't. The terrain is such that we can't do it," Cox said.
Apart from those street-focused projects, two plans are expected to help guide how dollars devoted to pedestrians would be spent: one completed about two years ago focused on needed infrastructure improvements in Tulsa for those with disabilities, and the other the master plan looking at regional needs for bicyclists and pedestrians.
INCOG is receiving money from Tulsa and other cities to coordinate the approximately $300,000 regional master plan. Staffers with the voluntary association of local governments recently met with consultants interested in the job.
As far as upgrades for pedestrians, "there's a lot of places that don't have sidewalks," Wagner noted. "Where are the places we really need to focus to make the most out of those dollars?"
It's one of the basic questions the study is expected to help answer.
"Of the things we really lack now, first of all, is an inventory of sidewalks in the city," Wagner said.
Stout described the importance of the $4.2 million in implementation funds for this regional master plan included in Improve Our Tulsa.
"I'm sure it will not pay for all the recommendations of the plan, but it will give us a good start as far as implementing the most high-priority needs identified in the plan," Stout said.
For the most part, any new sidewalks generally would be expected to go alongside streets with lots of traffic, Wagner said. If not built alongside these arterial roadways, they might go with the streets used to connect these arterials, roadways known as connector streets.
Stephen Lassiter serves on the Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee, a group that presents information to INCOG and the city of Tulsa.
He said he expects the master plan to highlight areas where there's a lack of connectivity for pedestrians and cyclists.
An example of his is the extensive trails in Tulsa that don't easily connect parts of the city to each other.
But the same concept can be applied to sidewalks, Lassiter noted.
"I think it might involve identifying where we have gaps in sidewalk networks," Lassiter said of the plan.
He gave an example of this lack of connectivity.
"We have several bus stops -- I can think of several on Memorial -- and it's just up on the grass. There's a concrete pad, there's a shelter, but no sidewalk. There's no way for someone in a wheelchair to get to that bus stop," Lassiter said.
The city has also put together a 30-year "transition" plan to improve such problem areas and comply with guidelines set by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The estimate is that it will take about $68.8 million to improve sidewalks to that compliance level, plus another $15 million for improvements to intersections, Stout said.
Part of that cost -- $10.2 million -- is included in the Improve Our Tulsa proposal.
Stout listed some of the sidewalk improvements scheduled as part of the ADA plan, including: S. Yale Avenue, from E. 31st to E. 41st streets; E. 11th Street, from S. Yale Avenue to S. Sheridan Road; and S. Peoria Avenue, from E. 36th to E. 46th streets.
The city also applies for federal grants to help pay for pedestrian and cyclist-related improvements -- and Improve Our Tulsa lists $7 million set aside for those funds.
"The city has a pot of money in order to contribute to a matching fund that the federal government would require for an application for federal grant money," Stout said, explaining that the grants often require that a city have approximately 20 percent of the total project costs.
Improve Our Tulsa also includes $1.5 million for sidewalk improvements on major streets, known as arterials, and another $500,000 for sidewalk improvements to smaller streets.
"There's a possibility we could do a new sidewalk" with those funds, Stout said.
The inclusion of millions for pedestrian projects follows an advocacy project earlier this year known as Sidewalk Stories, a series of short videos highlighting the needs of pedestrians in Tulsa.
Jessica Brent is chair of the Accessible Transportation Coalition, which put together the campaign. She described the coalition as a coming together of like-minded organizations, including Tulsa Transit and the Tulsa City-County Health Department.
"The Tulsa Transit system is fully accessible to people with disabilities. If ADA certified, they can ride for free," Brent said.
But she also described the lack of accessibility in getting to the bus stop.
"A lot of times, you just can't get to the bus because of a lack of sidewalks or curb cuts," she said.
While initially focused on the needs of those with disabilities, Brent said the group recognized that "a city that's fully accessible is going to benefit everyone, not just people with disabilities."
The group now sets out to demonstrate "the value of a walkable city," according to its website.
Safety for pedestrians is also a message promoted by the group, which has produced a video segment featuring the granddaughter of JoAnn Carlson, an 80-year-old woman who was hit by a vehicle in December while attempting to cross Cherry Street. Carlson died from her injuries.
"Our seniors, a lot of them are very independent people and want to do things on their own without asking for help," said Josie Carlson in the video, describing her grandmother. "And if there's better walkability, then they can do that."
Wagner, with INCOG, said he expects the upcoming master plan to recommend mid-block placement of some new pedestrian and cyclist-oriented intersections.
He described the technology as "a signal that's dark most of the time, then whenever a pedestrian actuates it, it becomes flashing red at first, then solid red, then flashing red and it goes back to dark after."
The advantage is that it doesn't tie up traffic when there are no pedestrians or cyclists needing to cross, Wagner said.
Brent said the Sidewalk Stories campaign helped bring advocates together who then spoke to Tulsa officials as the Tulsa City Council considered what projects to include in Improve Our Tulsa.
"They kind of showed themselves at those public meetings that the council had. They literally spoke up about sidewalks," Brent noted.
Lassiter said he also thinks safety improvements like the new mid-block signals might be the most immediate result of recommendations from the new master plan.
Wagner said INCOG expects to select a consultant for the plan by mid-November. After gathering public input in the spring, he said a finished plan could be ready by fall of next year.
Lassiter cited improved safety as a reason to support Improve Our Tulsa.
"I think we definitely want to see a safer city for Tulsans, for pedestrians, and I think all the projects pedestrian-related in this package are crucial for improving the safety of pedestrians," Lassiter said.
Another advocate for pedestrians, Janette Hammack, also serves as a volunteer on the Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee.
She said she doesn't like the amount devoted to streets when more of the money could be spent in other areas.
"I'd like to see a little more put towards sidewalk improvements," she said. But while she called the proposal "baby steps," Hammack said she plans to vote in favor of the tax package.
"I gave up my car," Hammack said, describing how she's getting by mostly on a scooter and the bus -- and enjoying the cost savings from not owning a car.
"For me, being a single mom, that's transformative. That's making a difference in the quality of life for my child," Hammack said of the money she's saving.
She cited the proposed $15 million for a bus rapid transit project as another vital part of the Improve Our Tulsa package that's also related to pedestrians and cyclists.
The plan calls for buses to arrive at locations with a 15-minute frequency during peak hours along a roughly 17-mile north-south route, mostly along Peoria Avenue.
"That's ultimately going to encourage more people to walk and to bicycle," Hammack said.
When it comes to projects helping people, "being able to get consistently to and from a job in a timely manner for some people is the most important thing," she noted.
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