Can Ithaca's sidewalk plan work for Jenkintown Borough?

Let’s consider Ithaca’s sidewalk plan for Jenkintown Borough

Ithaca’s program results from a government that listens to its constituents

Now that we have our own sidewalk ordeal behind us, we can concentrate on the ordinance and getting it changed. So many other other communities have better, more equitable and predictable methods. Ithaca, New York is one such place. Can Ithaca’s sidewalk plan work for Jenkintown Borough? Last week, we dropped our toes in the water at the Jenkintown Community Facebook page, and one member arguing in favor of the status quo, wrote no fewer than three times:

“Jenkintown is not for everyone.” That’s just not nice.

We merely contend that since Jenkintown presents itself as a walkable community, perhaps its budget should reflect that as a priority. Maybe the community should get involved in getting this done for the benefit of all of us. Instead, the borough doles out millions to make it easier to drive and park in town.

Except for the street corners where the Americans for Disabilities Act requires the Borough to install ramps, our town doesn’t spend a dime on its sidewalks. Instead, it tells us to do it, to find our own contractor, and pay whatever they ask (which is more than what PennDOT pays). Or else. We thus pay top dollar, and we get bottom results.

Is a beautiful streetscape worth $70/year to you?

In the past two weeks, I’ve heard several mentions of the Ithaca plan. In short, the city assesses a fee of $70 per year for most residents, less than half of what we currently pay for trash pickup, to fund a municipal program that maintains and fixes the city’s sidewalks.

One Jenkintown resident — a successful father of two and involved in local affairs who just spent $6,000 to repair his sidewalks and curbs — told us he presented this idea to Borough Manager George Locke. “He wasn’t interested.” There wasn’t even any discussion about it. What’s worse, this resident shook his head, saying, “I’m done with Jenkintown.”

Indeed, we sent out letters with invitations to discuss this further to our Borough councilors yet again, and three weeks later, no response. We have three councilors representing our ward, and none of them seem to have the time to even send an email in response.

Why can’t we at least have a discussion about this? Why shouldn’t people sit down and figure out a better way?

How do we pay for this? A few suggestions…

I would hazard a guess that if you polled all twelve of Jenkintown’s volunteer councilors about finding a better way to pay for sidewalk and curb repair, to a person, they’d likely respond, “but how do we do this without raising taxes?” Indeed, Councilor Laurie Durkin said just that via email, following with, “Residents must pay one way or another.”

Maybe, but a one-time, four-figured, out-of-the-blue financial broadside hurts far more than a long-range, pedestrian-focused plan.

So when Ms. Durkin asks me, “Do you have another suggestion or source of funding?”

As a matter of fact, I do.

Document published by the Advocacy Alliance that’s all about paying for sidewalks in a more sensible manner. Best parts start on page 18. Click to download.

Over last week, I received a reply to my request for information from The Alliance for Biking and Walking. I was sent a link to a document that contains twenty-eight pages of information on the topic. In case no one at borough hall had a chance to look this over, I will present some of the more salients points here.

In the introduction, the authors acknowledge the problem of funding. Many towns struggle with this issue, but they seek sustainable solutions because:

The response we heard from communities who are overcoming this challenge was remarkably consistent across community size, context, and project type: We build and maintain our bicycling and walking facilities because they are a priority for our community. [Emphasis theirs.]

The portion on sidewalk maintenance begins on page 18. Among other reasons, sidewalks are great ideas because they:

…provide tremendous value to communities by making walking safer and easier. Even without sidewalks people will walk, leading the FHWA to recommend that “[g]iven that people walk despite not having facilities—for exercise, going to friends’ houses, accessing transit, etc.—it is neither rational nor acceptable to build places that do not have places for people to walk.” [emphasis mine] In addition, sidewalks, like trails, can be more than transportation facilities; they can be “a place to abide, to meet others, and to participate in neighborhood life.” The uniqueness of sidewalks as multi-functional facilities should be a great asset for their construction and maintenance.


…sidewalks often face challenges, particularly related to maintenance. Even where sidewalks are recognized for the integral role to access transit and other activities, the maintenance of sidewalks can be a complicated picture that, in the worst case, leads to disrepair of facilities and community and developer resistance to new sidewalks.

Suffice to say, the document shows the many ways to skin this cat, but the city of Long Beach, California — a state like Pennsylvania in terms of its sidewalk repair policy — fully funds sidewalk maintenance by budgeting a repair program according to a schedule. For its efforts, the city has been cited as “Silver Level Walk-Friendly Community“.

The City of Long Beach has good sidewalk design standards and 100 percent sidewalk coverage on arterial and non-arterial streets. Sidewalks are repaired on a regular maintenance schedule and the City has almost complete curb ramp access in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

On page 23, the document finally asks “How are cities funding sidewalk maintenance programs?” Of the sixteen suggestions, I would direct Ms. Durkin to these:

Community-wide Assessments: Ithaca, NY was identified for its yearly assessment of between $70 and $140 to be used for sidewalk repair and construction.

Coordination with other improvements: Ironwood, MO; and Davidson, NC were identified in the FHWA Research Report that accompanied the Guide as communities that were using coordination to facilitate and fund sidewalk improvements. In Ironwood, the city coordinated sidewalk replacement with water and sewer line replacement. In Davidson, the city has had success informally coordinating with developers.

Sidewalk millage tax: Ann Arbor, MI was identified as a community with a millage (property) tax that generated $560,000 or more per year for sidewalk repair and replacement. The tax was approved by over 60% of voters.

(Much of this information is sourced, believe it or not, from the Federal Highway Administration.)

Nobody wants to see their taxes go up, but we typically accept that the public at large pays for public goods. I would again further contend that because the borough does a poor job in explaining its actions or describing the inflows and outflows of our tax dollars at their brand new website, that perhaps we take a closer look at its fiscal behaviors. Maybe the borough is doing things it shouldn’t be doing. Given the shocking lack of detail in its latest budget posting, I think this is a fair concern. The borough does us a disservice, not a favor, by publishing a summary of a $6.7 million budget.

When you consider that no one reports on council hearings and that the borough hasn’t posted an agenda since April or meeting minutes since last February(!), then only a fool would not wonder how well the borough governs itself, never mind us.

In any case, the borough’s activities of late would indicate that no one, least of all our former-building-inspector-turned-borough-manager, has bothered to do even the slightest amount of research on the topic of sustainable pedestrian infrastructure. Time to crack the books, Mr. Locke.