COLUMBIA — The debate over sidewalks and road improvements on Clark Lane isn't new, and there isn't much controversy over what the result should look like.
There's agreement that the road should be widened and concrete sidewalks with a grass buffer installed, and everyone also agrees that this probably should have been done a long time ago.
That final solution won't be ready until 2018 at the earliest. What to do in the meantime is where the disagreements start.
The city plans to install an asphalt shoulder and narrow lanes by a foot on each side to create 6-foot-wide pedestrian walkways on both sides of the road, providing safer travel for people who walk along Clark Lane.
Some residents who live near the road have said narrowing it and installing the shoulder is unsafe because that will encourage more people to walk close to traffic. They are also concerned they will never get concrete sidewalks, although the City Council has repeatedly promised those are in the works.
The council plans to have at least one more public hearing that's sure to feature intense debate. The interim plan for an asphalt shoulder has unanimous support from council members, but at this point, nothing is guaranteed.
Graphic by Graciela Aguilarleon
The city's position
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said he understands the desire to complete the project right away, but it simply can't be done.
"None of us likes a temporary solution," Skala said. "I'd love to put sidewalks in place now. It just isn't possible, and what we currently have out there is not acceptable."
There are three main reasons sidewalks can't be installed at this time.
First, the topography of the land poses a problem. To install a sidewalk, grading must occur to ensure the sidewalk is constructed either on level ground or at the same slope of the road — critical for safe pedestrian and wheelchair travel.
The stretch of Clark Lane in question has hills and ravines that complicate the process, but the biggest problem is a steep drop-off between the road and the proposed sidewalk.
Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas voted against the shoulder proposal in a preliminary vote because he thought the city should have been able to install proper sidewalks right away. But he said the city's interested-parties meeting was enough to change his mind about the project.
"My feeling was if we showed enough political will, we could make this happen quickly. But after going to the IP meeting, ... it's something they can only really do at the same time as they build the road," Thomas said.
Second, gaining easements and rights of way creates another problem. Skala said that constructing a sidewalk along Clark Lane would fall under multiple jurisdictions.
The road is within city limits, but the state controls the road. Part of the road falls under county jurisdiction, too. And because federal funds will be used on the project, another set of restrictions and regulations would need to be followed.
Skala said that the city has everything it needs to proceed with the proposed shoulder but that getting the easements and rights of way for a sidewalk could take more than a year.
Finally, the funds are not available. City officials have put a price tag of $400,000 on the asphalt shoulder proposal, but Skala said that because that shoulder will become a part of the road when it is eventually widened, the proposal will not cost the city any additional money.
Installing sidewalks is another story. Skala estimates that combining the road work and sidewalk project will cost the city close to $6.5 million. The city has given preliminary approval to dedicate $325,800 of GetAbout funding toward the project, but more funds will be necessary.
In order to get funding to complete the entire project, Skala said residents will need to extend the city's quarter-cent sales tax for capital improvement projects, set to expire in 2015. He said the issue could be placed on the ballot in 2014 to speed up projects dependent on that funding.
In laying out its case for the asphalt shoulder, the city has not only shown why it thinks the sidewalk can't be installed, but why it thinks an interim solution such as the shoulder is a necessity. People currently walk either directly alongside the road or in ditches and ravines that run parallel to it. Construction on the shoulder would be complete in August 2014.
Thomas put his approval behind the interim project after he proposed the shoulder be double-striped and rumble strips be placed on the border of the road to notify inattentive drivers they were veering into the pedestrian lane.
Regardless of the council's decision on the shoulder proposal, construction widening Clark Lane to include a center turn lane and adding concrete sidewalks with a grass buffer will begin in 2016 or 2017, depending on when the tax for capital projects goes before voters.
Many people who live near Clark Lane are skeptical of the city's promises and want a sidewalk with a buffer built immediately. Roger Dye, who lives in the Clark Lane neighborhood, said the city has the money but chooses to spend it elsewhere.
"We want the sidewalks now," Dye said. "They're fixing other people's roads. Why not our road?"
Also at issue is the proposal's caveat that the road be narrowed by a foot on each side. Mary Stackhouse, who lives near Clark Lane, said that narrowing the road would make it unsafe for both drivers and pedestrians.
"You're going to get people maybe killed out there," Stackhouse said. "Anytime you narrow a street with this much traffic on it, you're asking for a disaster."
Residents are also skeptical of the city's promise to build proper sidewalks and widen the road when funds become available. Mary Hussmann, an organizer of a group called the Campaign for Clark Lane Sidewalks, said, "We'll believe it when we see it."
Hussmann is unhappy that the interim proposal is different from what her group wants and is frustrated that the council hasn't changed its plans based on feedback from the group.
"It does make you question if the city even wants to hear from the people in the first place," Hussmann said. "It begs the question of what kind of representative government we have."
Despite the city's insistence that sidewalks cannot be installed right away and the paved shoulder is the safest stopgap, some residents feel that doing nothing is a better idea.
"That's like slapping a Band-Aid on an ingrown toenail," Stackhouse said of the asphalt shoulder proposal. "You're still going to have the problem, and you're gonna have the expense."
Other residents had a different view on the proposal. Jubal Bowers, a Columbia resident who frequents Clark Lane, said that while sidewalks are needed as soon as possible, the asphalt shoulder is necessary to provide safe pedestrian travel in the meantime.
"I'm for it, but I wish the infrastructure would have been put in right the first time," Bowers said.
The Campaign for Clark Lane Sidewalks said the council will vote on the proposed asphalt shoulder Jan. 20, but Skala said he'd like the council to take action before the end of the year. The city manager's office was not able to confirm whether a date had been set for either a public hearing or a final vote on the issue.
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