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Despite ongoing major road construction within West Urbana, multiple stretches of brick sidewalks that do not meet the standards of the federal disability act will not be fixed.
City officials say it can’t be done because of a limited budget and the limited scope of the project.
The Champaign-Urbana Multimodal Corridor Enhancement, known as MCORE, is a five-part project that is rehabilitating roads into a street network. Project 5 involves the reconstruction of Green Street, stretching from Busey Avenue to Race Street in West Urbana.
The project will replace all sidewalks and sidewalk ramps, but brick sidewalks outside of the MCORE construction zone will not be upgraded.
Urbana City Administrator Carol Mitten said the MCORE Project will serve all modes of transportation equally and safely but said there’s a conflict between the capital needs of the City of Urbana and the City’s restricted ability to meet those needs due to its limited budget.
Mitten said the MCORE Project cost $5.4 million and was “very expensive” to fund. She said the City doesn’t have the finances to correct every non-ADA compliant sidewalk in Urbana that is outside of MCORE’s construction zone.
According to Urbana’s 2020 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), $5.4 million is the estimated cost for MCORE construction within West Urbana, which is approximately 47% of the plan’s estimated costs for Urbana’s completed and ongoing projects.
She said the MCORE Project is fixing any brick sidewalks that were disturbed during the overall construction process, but the project never included any money for fixing the sidewalks outside of its construction zone.
“If we had lots and lots of money, we would be working to make all of our sidewalks ADA compliant, but we don’t have that kind of money,” Mitten said.
The plan said state and local motor fuel taxes, general fund transfers and grants are the main sources of funds for projects and said there is a significant amount of variability in these funds. In 2021, revenue decreased by 41% compared with 2020, and expenses in 2021 decreased by 77% compared with 2020. Grant revenue in 2021 decreased to $15,000 compared with 2020’s grant revenue of $2.8 million.
The plan said the motor fuel tax revenue was expected to increase substantially in 2021, but the increase was counteracted by COVID-19 and its negative impact on travel. The City’s revenue is still expected to increase in 2021, but the plan indicates there’s a great deal of uncertainty regarding these future projections.
City officials were unable to provide exact numbers on the motor fuel tax revenue and how COVID-19 affected the revenue stream.
Mitten said there is an allocation of $100,000 for all sidewalk repairs but said the City doesn’t have an estimate for the cost of repairing only the brick sidewalks. She said an accurate estimate for the repair of brick sidewalks would have to be done on a block-by-block basis because the sidewalks are in varying degrees of disrepair.
She said the plan used to have separate funds for the repair of brick and concrete sidewalks, but the categories were combined because the City needed to prioritize all sidewalk repairs equally. She said the amount of brick sidewalks in the City is very small in comparison to the number of concrete sidewalks.
Several sidewalk segments in West Urbana are set with bricks, and many of the neighborhood’s brick sidewalks are uneven and overgrown with weeds and grass.
According to Urbana’s 2020 Pedestrian Master Plan, some Urbana residents expressed concerns that the inadequate maintenance of the sidewalks is hazardous to wheelchair users and other pedestrians because of the sidewalks’ up-heaved bricks. The Pedestrian Plan said other residents indicate that the brick sidewalks should be preserved because they are integral to the historic character of Urbana’s older neighborhoods.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities by state and local government agencies, which means transportation and pedestrian infrastructure must be safe and convenient for wheelchair users to use.
According to the Pedestrian Plan, a sidewalk’s ADA compliance score is determined by its cross slope, vertical faults, obstructions and width. The Pedestrian Plan said many sidewalk segments currently do not comply with ADA standards.
Urbana’s Pedestrian Plan said all vertical faults in a sidewalk must be less than half an inch to be ADA compliant, and all faults between a quarter-inch and half an inch must be ground down to remove the fault. A sidewalk’s cross-slope must be a maximum of 2%, and a sidewalk’s width must be five feet or greater to maintain accessibility.
Urbana’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission’s At Large Cynthia Hoyle said the City has been proactive about improving sidewalks during MCORE construction, but the project can only afford to renovate specific corridors, and there aren’t any leftover funds to cover the expenses of repairing other sidewalks.
“We know where all of the bad sidewalks and ramps are. So the cities are using that information to prioritize those locations that need to be fixed based on a number of criteria because of the limited funding, which right now with the pandemic is becoming even more limited and most cities are now reducing budgets,” she said.
Urbana Civil Engineer II Justin Swinford said the City is aware of the sidewalks within West Urbana that aren’t accessible to wheelchair users but said the City’s limited budget prevents the prioritization of the sidewalk repairs. He said the City tries to find a project to work on each year that will provide the most efficient and cost-effective improvement for the City, but he said he couldn’t speak as to where the next set of sidewalk repairs will take place.
“One of the significant challenges we have as a city is improving that infrastructure, and we’ve got, in all aspects, aging infrastructure that is difficult to maintain,” Swinford said. “So we do budget for sidewalk improvements throughout the city each year, but that’s largely an uphill battle.”
The Pedestrian Plan recommends that the City should consider changing the brick sidewalk reconstruction policy to help address concerns about the sidewalks’ maintenance and preservation by changing the reconstruction policy from “reconstruct with brick unless the owner asks for concrete” to “reconstruct with concrete unless the owner asks for brick.”
According to the Pedestrian Plan, any changes to the brick sidewalk policy must be made through a public discussion by the City Council, the Historic Preservation Commission, the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission and residents.
Hoyle said brick sidewalks are a “really hot topic” within the community and said the City is facing real challenges in fixing the sidewalks without upsetting residents who are in favor of the brick sidewalks. She said she doesn’t support brick sidewalks because they present significant challenges to people who use mobility devices.
West Urbana resident Laura Haber said she was hesitant to comment on the neighborhood’s sidewalks because of the community’s differing views on the historic brick sidewalks.
“There’s different views about the brick sidewalks because for some people they think that they’re an issue for accessibility, but for other people, if they think they’re maintained then they’re not an issue,” Haber said.
Hoyle said the state departments of transportation are the real cause of funding problems because they were initially created to build the interstate highway system, but many departments are still primarily focused on building highways instead of addressing issues like ADA compliance. She said the lack of funding for state departments of transportation affects local governments’ funds and ability to complete projects.
“The funding problem is from top to bottom. We’re not funding our transportation system adequately, and the funding system that we have doesn’t work well. Basically, the fuel tax doesn’t work well when people are driving more and more fuel-efficient vehicles,” Hoyle said. “We need a different kind of funding system for our transportation, and that would really require elected officials to make the changes. It’s a big, complicated problem.”