Economic Development, Government, and Real Estate

Vote for streets and sidewalks paves way for growth

April 28, 2014
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Are we on a highway to gravel?
Michigan ranks last in state per-capita spending on roads and bridges, based on 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data, according to the Michigan Infrastructure Transportation Association. Photo via fb.com

As the snow finally melted from our streets this spring, it revealed a very unpleasant truth: the condition of our roads is deplorable.

State of disrepair

Streets in some of Grand Rapids’ urban neighborhoods are so pockmarked with ruts and pits that they’re virtually impassable. Speed bumps have become comically redundant. Many yawning potholes in main thoroughfares are deep enough to kill a cyclist who isn’t paying attention.

This winter took a hard toll on our streets, but the truth is that they’ve been deteriorating for several years. Our city street system is in 60% poor condition, a situation that has been exacerbated by decreased funding for street maintenance over the last four years. In 2009, the city of Grand Rapids invested $4.5 million from its General Operating Fund into street maintenance. In 2010, that number was just $1.5 million. For 2014, that number is $0. If left on its current trajectory of no new investment, it’s projected that 87% of our streets will be in poor condition by 2019.

The loss of funding for street and sidewalk investment has happened for a variety of reasons: loss of federal funding, decreased income from state gas tax due to higher-efficiency vehicles, the re-allocation of city General Operating Funds to other basic services. Federal, state and city governments have been tightening their belts in the wake of economic crisis. This has resulted in efficiencies that have allowed us to pull through the crisis, but now we’re facing a crisis of a different sort.

A recent survey has estimated that Grand Rapids’poor road conditions are costing local drivers an average of $1,027 each year. And that’s just brushing the surface. When you take in to account the poor condition of many of our sidewalks (which are the costly responsibility of property owners to maintain), the lack of accessibility to cyclists, handicapped and elderly, the inefficiency of current stormwater-management systems and the general lack of vitality on our city streets, the issue becomes critical on multiple levels. This is an issue that affects our city’s economic development, neighborhood vitality and basic infrastructure.

After all, who would want to live or invest in a city that isn’t willing to fix its own streets and sidewalks?

Vote

On May 6, Grand Rapids residents will have the opportunity to vote on a city income tax increase continuation, which would secure investment in city streets and sidewalks for the next 15 years. This 0.2% increase, along with a small investment from the city’s General Operating Fund (about $500,000 a year), would exclusively fund repair, improvement and reconstruction of city streets, sidewalks and rights-of-way, based on a “vital streets” concept.

The ballot proposal would also remove the burden of sidewalk maintenance from home and business owners, making this the responsibility of the city instead.

Dedicated funds

It’s important to note that this is an increase that has already been in place since 2010, when the city voted to raise income tax from 1.3% to 1.5%. In other words: voting yes to the May 6 income tax increase would not cost Grand Rapids residents anything more than they’re already paying. It would simply secure this as an investment in our streets and sidewalks.

Return on investment

So what, exactly, would this investment do for the city? In short: plenty.

The Streets and Sidewalk Investment would “restore streets to 70% good and fair condition,” according to the Fix Our Roads GR campaign. Vital Street and Sidewalk Investment Guidelines are focused around the “vital streets”concept, a brainchild of the Sustainable Streets Task Force. A vital street is “one that is not only in good or fair condition at a reasonable cost, but one that serves a variety of critical functions. . . meeting the economic, social and environmental needs of our city,” according to Fix Our Roads GR.

The vital streets concept emphasizes the importance of accessibility, neighborhood vitality and low-impact design. This translates into attention to curb cuts, landscaping, sidewalks, stormwater management and pavement markings — all elements that contribute to neighborhood vitality for pedestrians, businesses and cyclists, as well as drivers.

David Doyle, manager of the Fix Our Roads GR campaign, commented, “Whenever there’s an income tax increase on the ballot, people always want to know: ‘What does it cost me? What do I get for it? And what’s going to happen if it fails?’ The answer to the first question is nothing more than it already does. The answer to the last question is roads and sidewalks that are simply impassable. If Grand Rapids wants to continue to be a growing, progressive city, we need to invest in our streets.”

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