MISSOULA — With new council members in place, the perpetual debate over sidewalks and who should fund them resurfaced again on Monday as a plan to place infrastructure in central Missoula moves forward.
The city last endured a protracted debate on sidewalks in 2019 after it became clear that its current system placed too much of the cost on homeowners. In response, the city adjusted its policy to more equally split the cost of sidewalks with the property owner.
The issue appeared solved until Monday when two new council members balked at a proposal to improve the right-of-way along Eaton Street. The $760,000 project includes new sidewalks, curb and gutter, a bus stop, stormwater and roadway improvements.
Of the total cost, property owners in the area will fund $77,000 of the work — or around 10% of the total cost. However, none of the 61 property owners within the affected area will be asked to pay more than the $3,500 cap under current policy, and there are several options to pay that over time.
“We’ve modified that program at least twice in the last couple of years to further reduce the homeowner portion and reduce the out-of-pocket maximum,” said council member Jordan Hess. “It’s still a lot of money, and I want to recognize that.”
In 2018, Mayor John Engen killed a proposed sidewalk replacement project in the Slant Street neighborhood after the costs came in too high. Several property owners living on corner lots were facing bills as high as $38,000, even after city subsidies were factored in.
The next year, the city revamped its Pedestrian Facilities Master Plan to find more equitable ways to share the cost with homeowners without placing higher taxes on the larger public. The end result transferred funding from other sources into the sidewalk replacement program to cover street-related work, such as curb and gutter.
It also placed a cap upon the cost passed on to a property owner. But several new members of the City Council now want to revisit that policy, and they attempted to send the Eaton Street project back to committee on Monday night.
However, that effort failed.
“To say right now is not the time to address policy is really short-sighted and frustrating,” said newly elected council member Kristen Jordan. “We need to find a different way to fund these things. I’m very concerned about the cost on homeowners.”
Sidewalks have long been a subject of debate in Missoula, with nearly all council members agreeing they represent equity and should be equally accessible in all neighborhoods. As it currently stands, however, the city currently has more than 200 miles of missing sidewalks.
In 2019, the cost of building a new sidewalk was $68 a linear foot while the cost to replace and repair a sidewalk was $69 a foot. The costs have since increased.
“Sidewalks are something we need but they’re expensive to fund,” said council member Amber Sherrill. “But tonight, we’re implementing policy, we’re not making policy. It’s a mistake to piecemeal, and it’s very inequitable if we’re piecemealing project by project. This is the policy we have currently.”
Other potential flaws in the city’s current sidewalk plan also surfaced on Monday. Councilmember Mike Nugent suggested that a buyer of a new home in Missoula absorbs 100% of the cost of the sidewalk abutting their property.
But those with existing homes enjoy some public subsidies, he added.
“When we talk about the cost of housing, in new construction, the homeowner is getting passed 100% of those sidewalk fees right now,” he said. “There’s not an appetite to raise taxes to do more sidewalks.”