Photo: Heather Leighton

The team at the City of Houston's Public Works Office aims to have the backlog of sidewalk requests cleared by this winter. 

Since July 2018, Pat Campbell, Houston's Public Works deputy assistant director, has managed the building and repairs of Houston's sidewalks, which are notorious for being a hot mess

Houston's sidewalks cause some to profess fears of walking and others call it a "horrific adventure." It's understandable as many neighborhoods have broken, cracked, missing or uneven sidewalks that turn an evening stroll into a watchful-eye hike while trying not to trip. Across Houston, it's the property owner's responsibility to maintain the sidewalks in front of their property, but there aren't any ordinances that keep property owners accountable

"It's a catch 22 situation," said Darren Wilson, senior project manager with the Publics Works Office. "Do we force the residents to spend money to replace these, or do we spend taxpayer dollars to repair a lot of these sidewalks that need to be?"

The city has $2.6 million a year to rebuild, maintain and repair sidewalks, which primarily goes toward completing pedestrian accessibility review (PAR) requests, as well as the school sidewalk program and major thoroughfare program. PAR requests are the highest priority and provide up to 1,500 feet of improved sidewalk accessibility for people with disabilities to travel to the bank, bus stop, educational facility, employment, grocery store, home, medical facility, METROLift, pharmacy, vehicle or place of worship.

"There was a huge backlog when I took over," Campbell said of the sidewalk requests. "We've been working diligently and since February we've constructed $3 million worth of sidewalks. We plan to have all of the sidewalk backlog completed by the end of the year." According to Campbell, a linear square foot of sidewalk costs the city about $40-$45. 

But to complete her goal of clearing the backlog list by December 2019, Campbell needs about $9 million more to invest in Houston's sidewalk repairs.

"We've been doing everything we can," Campbell said. "And our deputy director and the mayor have given us extra money to try and get all of these caught up."

In December, the Houston Chronicle's editorial board prompted City Council to continue to fight for Houston's sidewalks saying in part, "For those in wheelchairs, properly maintained sidewalks are a matter of civil rights. Businesses, residences and Metro stops may be built to accommodate people with disabilities, but much of that work is wasted if the sidewalks connecting them remain broken."

"For Houstonians who can’t afford cars, it can be a matter of life and death. A Governing Magazine study found that high poverty areas in Harris County had pedestrian death rates more than double that of low poverty areas. For leaders grappling with climate change, improved walkability is a key tool to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Any trip taken by foot is one car off the road."

Before the new project management system Campbell implemented this year, the average wait time for a PAR request was five years, according to Wilson. "We were starting to build some that the council member actually told us not to build because the school that we were building it to was no longer there. That's how old some of these requests were," Campbell said. "I went back and looked and saw that request was 10 years old."

"Our wait time now is trying to get it within 90 days once we get it," Campbell said. "That's my goal. So by November or December, there will be no more backlog and once we get a request sent over to us, within 90 days we'll have it constructed. To get this backlog cleared would be my greatest accomplishment thus far."

Campbell shared that there are hundreds of millions of other requests that exist that won't be addressed because they don't fall under the responsibility of the city.

"There's probably a list of at least 100 million people who put in a request to have sidewalks removed and replaced that have been deemed ineligible because the city will not pay for it," Campbell said. "Because it wasn't for anybody with disabilities and the council district has not offered to pay for it." In these cases, it would be the property owner's responsibility to fix the sidewalks, Campbell said.