Bloomington strengthens local law keeping pedestrian ways open near construction sites

This April 2020 aerial image of the construction project at 14th Street and College Avenue is from the county’s Pictometry module of Monroe County’s online property records. It’s where resident Greg Alexander was flipped off by a skid steer operator operating in the walkaround earlier this year.

At its regular meeting last Wednesday, Bloomington’s city council beefed up its ordinance that applies to the way contractors can use the public right of way, like sidewalks, when they’re working on construction projects.

Highlights of the revised ordinance, which the council approved on a unanimous vote, include conditions that a walkaround is supposed to meet, if it is unavoidable that the sidewalk is blocked because of construction activities.

Under the old code requirement on walkarounds, there was no mention that the walkaround should be on the same side of the street as the blocked route, or protected by concrete or water-filled barricades, or that Indiana’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (IMUTCD) guidelines had be followed, including advance warning signs.

A new section of the code approved by the city council imposes a regimen of enforcement measures. They include the explicit authorization of the city’s traffic engineer to use legal proceedings to revoke or withhold approvals and certificates relevant to the site, and to issue a stop work order, among other measures.

The penalties section of the new ordinance includes a fine of up to $2,500 for a first violation, and up to $7,500 for each violation after the first one.

At meetings of the city council, the board of public works and the city plan commission, resident Greg Alexander  has during public commentary routinely advocated for installing and maintaining sidewalks. Alexander said on Wednesday that he was cautiously optimistic that the revised ordinance would lead to improved conditions for pedestrians. “Will construction sites by my house be the only ones that have enforcement, just the fluke that somebody repeatedly complains? I’m optimistic, I guess, cautiously.”

Alexander recounted some of the history of his complaints about the blocking of sidewalks by construction projects. “I decided to report a continuing violation every day for three weeks. And suddenly, I had three different members of the engineering division, telling me they absolutely have no enforcement mechanism.”

About the new ordinance, Alexander said, “Now they’ll have the ability to enforce the law.”

Councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith thanked Sara Gomez, the public improvements manager for her work on the ordinance. Piedmont-Smith called it “long overdue legislation.”

She said, “It’s long overdue that we have some recourse to fine people who block the pedestrian right of way.” Piedmont-Smith said she thinks the new ordinance will “improve matters for pedestrians throughout the city when there’s construction going on.” She added, “But I think also we should keep an eye on it and see if it really does have sufficient teeth.”

A vignette: What does advocating for unobstructed sidewalks mean?

The image included with this article shows how the sidewalk was blocked along the east side of College Avenue south of 14th Street in April 2020.

On July 22, 2020, Bloomington resident Greg Alexander addressed the city council, at its regular meeting, on the topic of sidewalks getting blocked by the student housing project that was being built at the corner of 14th Street and College Avenue.

It effectively blocked the sidewalk for the first six months of this year, parking vehicles, equipment and supplies on it often overnight and using it as part of their construction activities. I made sure staff was well informed about it. And I’ll tell you, I talked to a few staff members who were obviously very frustrated that they couldn’t do anything to keep the sidewalk clear. At the last phase of the project, the beginning of July, the contractor was required to install a walkaround. The trouble is they used the walkaround the same way they used the old sidewalk. They were running heavy equipment through it.

That brings us to this photo…In this photo, a skid steer is in the walk around. The operator is so confident that he belongs in the walkaround that he’s flipping me off as I stand there blocking his path. Do you know anything about OSHA or transportation standards? A skid steer operating in the walk around confronting a pedestrian is the most brazen possible violation.

So I stood there for an hour and a half having a standoff with the skid steer operator. I called BPD. And they sent a couple officers who basically explained that they didn’t believe there is such a thing as a walkaround. That’s pretty disappointing because educating police about pedestrian transportation is actually part of several plans that have passed this council. Planning and transportation sent a couple men and they explained to me directly they have absolutely no tools for enforcement. They cannot, in fact, issue a stop work order. At the end of it.

The contractor had paid a penalty, though. You can imagine the stir that something like this causes at a construction site for an hour and a half straight. They had different groupings of half a dozen men telling each other what a jerk I am. Telling the cops what a jerk I am. Telling planning staff what a jerk I am. Telling me what a jerk I am. All together it seems they wasted about 10 man hours just calling me a jerk. To my knowledge that’s the first penalty any contractor has ever paid for blocking a sidewalk in Bloomington: 10 man hours.