Analysis by Bloomington resident: Sidewalk project funding not equitable, political bias a factor

A report released by Bloomington resident Mark Stosberg late Monday questions the way funding for construction of new sidewalks has been allocated in the city for the last 17 years.

White dots with lines indicate projects recommended for funding by Bloomington city council’s sidewalk committee over the last 17 years. The darker the blue shading, the higher income the area is, based on US Census data. The image links to Bloomington resident Mark Stosberg’s “Sidewalk Equity Audit”

The report concludes that the process a four-member city council sidewalk committee has used  to recommend funding has caused an inequitable distribution of limited resources.

From the executive summary of Stosberg’s report: “The audit found that the current politically-biased process resulted in skewing sidewalk projects towards neighborhoods that were wealthier, less dense and had lower pedestrian demand.”

To fund all the projects on last year’s potential project list would take around $17 million. Using just the roughly $330,000 a year that’s allocated to building new sidewalks with the city council’s program would mean a half-century wait until all those sidewalks are built.

City staff and councilmembers alike have over the last year talked about the need to find more money to pay for new sidewalk construction.

Based on Stosberg’s remarks at a July meeting of the city’s bicycle and pedestrian safety commission (BPSC), the audit helps make the point that if funding is limited, then it’s that much more important to make sure the resources are distributed equitably.

Stosberg is president of the BPSC.  The commission got a preview of a draft version of the report at its October meeting. Other members gave Stosberg some feedback, but the authorship of the report is Stosberg’s.

The idea that the current approach could be a “politically biased process” is conceivable, based on the fact that it’s a four-member city council committee that works closely with staff from different city departments to select the projects for funding recommendations.

Stosberg’s audit uses US Census data on income to identify “a concentration of wealthier census blocks in the southeast part of town.”

About those wealthier census blocks, Stosberg’s report says, “That’s also where the about half of sidewalk committee funded projects landed and significantly overlaps with city council District 4, which has been continuously represented on the sidewalk committee for 17 years.”

Dave Rollo, who represents District 4, has served on the city council since 2003.

Rollo was appointed again this year to the council’s sidewalk committee, along with Kate Rosenbarger (District 1), Ron Smith (District 3) and Jim Sims (at large). Sims is chair of the committee. This year is the first for Smith and Rosenbarger to serve on the committee, because it’s their first year of service on the city council.

Stosberg’s audit does not fault Rollo for the outcome of funding decisions: “This is not a ‘bad apple’ case. By design, city council members advocate for their districts. This is a systematic design flaw.”

At the July 28 meeting of BPSC, Stosberg inferred from the most recent year’s report from the city council’s sidewalk committee that one particular project, a crosswalk improvement at Moore’s Pike and Smith Road (on the edge of Rollo’s district), had been added outside of an objective ranking scheme, because Rollo had pushed for it, based in part on the fact that it cost only $28,000.

Later during the BPSC meeting, Beth Rosenbarger, who’s the city’s planning services manager, told Stosberg, “As someone who was in the room when that was picked, where there is not public comment, because it’s a committee, I share your analysis, for sure.” [Beth Rosenbarger is councilmember Kate Rosenbarger’s sister.]

The city council’s committee is provided by Rosenbarger with a matrix of rankings for requested projects, which gives committee members some objective criteria to work from. Stosberg’s report points to the use of objective criteria as a best practice, but is critical of the committee’s process, because the committee “can completely ignore” the objective criteria and fund projects regardless of objective rank.

Stosberg’s report also describes “an error” in one of the spreadsheet formulas that staff has used to rank and sort projects. That has, according to Stosberg’s report, resulted in one of the components to the scoring getting ranked “in the wrong order, scrambling the overall results.”

The city council’s official description of possible departures from the objective criteria for project selection talks about mediating objective and subjective factors. From the 2021 proposed budget document: “Key features of [the sidewalk committee’s] deliberations are a prioritization sheet, which uses objective criteria to gauge need and usage, and committee discussion to mediate the objective and subjective factors, and to assess cost and feasibility.”

At the Nov. 12, 2019 meeting of the council’s sidewalk committee, attended by The Square Beacon, some of the opening discussion centered on the objective criteria and the rankings. The general consensus was that some of the scoring was “imperfect” but could be useful as a “guide.” One point of emphasis was: The committee is not bound in a rigid way by the ranking of projects by the objective criteria.

One of the recommendations in Stosberg’s report would affect how projects get on the list to be ranked in the first place. The report recommends that eligible projects be considered not on a request basis, but based on objective criteria, starting with an inventory of all the sidewalk gaps in the city.

From Stosberg’s audit: “A request-based input system is biased towards those who know the system exists, believe the system works for them or have had success with the system in the past. Neighborhoods that lack advocates and are not as well known to the city staff would not fare as well in the current system.”

The council’s sidewalk committee is not required to exist under local code. But a portion of the alternative transportation fund gets allocated every year to the city council in the city’s budget under the council’s “capital outlays.” And the sidewalk committee is part of the process the city council uses to approve expenditures from that budget allocation.

The local ordinance creating the alternative transportation fund was the same one that in 1992 established the neighborhood parking permit system. It’s those parking permit fees that are “received in excess of the annual cost of operating the [neighborhood permit parking] program” that go into the city’s alternative transportation fund.

Under the ordinance, “Expenditures from the fund shall be approved by the council.” Expenditures are constrained by the defined purpose of the fund: “The alternative transportation fund shall be for the purpose of reducing our community’s dependence upon the automobile. ”

Bloomington’s city council sidewalk committee normally meets around this time of year, to pick which proposals for new sidewalks citywide should receive funding for the next calendar year.

No meetings have yet been scheduled for this year. And the committee might not even meet, if the city council were to follow the recommendations in Stosberg’s report.

One of those recommendations is: “Move new sidewalk funding decisions to the planning and transportation department staff.”

7 thoughts on “Analysis by Bloomington resident: Sidewalk project funding not equitable, political bias a factor

  1. Check out the Utilities improvement. Much of that influences sidewalk upgrades. If pipes under sidewalk need to be worked on, then they pay for the sidewalk improvement or addition.

  2. Also, I believe this is not the only money for sidewalk improvement. Just money for council decisions

  3. Susan Wanzer– you are correct that there are other pots of money for funding new sidewalks and reparing existing sidewalks. I was looking particularly at the funds approved by the Sidewalk Committee to keep the scope of research manageable.

  4. I appreciate that this report has been done.
    I don’t see how the final recommendation… to move these decisions to planning is going to help with equity!

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