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Memphis Officials Make Plans For Fixing Sidewalks

Memphis has more sidewalks than some peer cities, but they’re in bad shape.



Ten years. $200 million. That's what city officials say it will take to fix the city's sidewalks.

That's not even the city's entire stock of 3,429 miles of sidewalks, which if lined end to end would stretch from Texas to Hawaii. The program proposed last week to the Memphis City Council would only fix about 18 percent of sidewalks, though about 33 percent require immediate repair, officials said. 

Star Ritchey, the owner of Midtown running group Star Runners, said Memphis sidewalks are "absolutely dangerous."

"Motorists often get annoyed that runners are in the road, but what they don't realize is that many of our sidewalks are in such bad shape, you couldn't use them if you wanted to," Ritchey said. "The majority of the sidewalks in Midtown are a mess, either broken up due to tree roots, or construction or whatever." 

The city's engineering department began work on a plan last year to fix sidewalks, with priorities placed on sidewalks near schools. The School Safety Action Plan, which was unveiled last week, would benefit students walking to and from school as well as to parks, community centers, and libraries.

"As the public infrastructure in the city, including sidewalks, continues to grow older, the need to be proactive in maintaining this vital transportation network remains high," said Kyle Wagenschutz, the city's bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.

If Memphis sidewalks last 60 years, the city should be spending $19 million each year to maintain them, according to city engineers. City leaders typically budget $100,000 each year for sidewalk maintenance and have spent $334,000 over the past 10 years for their repair. That amount would allow a stretch of Memphis sidewalk to be replaced every 11,000 years, engineers said. 

But in Memphis, sidewalk repair is the responsibility of property owners. That fact is thanks to a city law passed in 1967 that says owners of properties abutting any public street are "required to provide and maintain adjacent to his or her property a sidewalk." It's the same in New Orleans, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Nashville, though all of those cities easily outspend Memphis on sidewalk repair.

Sidewalks came to the fore last year when city officials began aggressively enforcing the sidewalk repair ordinance. A complaint would be registered (typically through the city's 311 system) and then code enforcement officials would inspect the sidewalk and issue a citation to the homeowner, who had to fix the sidewalk or be ordered to court.

Hundreds of citations were ordered in a few months until the council halted sidewalk citations altogether. Council members said the financial burden of fixing sidewalks was too great on many low-income residents. 

City Engineer John Cameron unveiled a plan to help those homeowners last week. It would offer financial assistance to homeowners (not renters or owners of multiple properties) who make less than $25,000 per year, are 65 or older, or are 100-percent disabled. It would also be offered to households that fall below the federal poverty line. 

Cameron said the program would cost $200,000 this fiscal year to help address the sidewalks of the 400 properties that now have outstanding citations. Next year, he projected the program would cost between $200,000 and $500,000. The total project could cost between $6 million and $9 million.

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