Traverse City News and Events

Making Connections: City Completes $7.7 Million In Sidewalk Work In Five Years

By Beth Milligan | Oct. 11, 2021

Five years ago, Traverse City commissioners and staff embarked on an effort to improve connectivity and walkability across the community by aggressively funding new sidewalk construction and repairs. At the commission’s 7pm meeting tonight (Monday), residents and representatives from groups including Norte, TART Trails, and Safe Routes to School are invited to celebrate the results of that effort: over 20 miles of sidewalk either built or reconstructed since 2016 and $7.7 million invested in walkable infrastructure.

City staff will provide a recap tonight of work that’s been completed since city commissioners agreed to start allocating “substantially more funding toward sidewalks,” according to City Manager Marty Colburn. That effort began with the 2015-16 fiscal budget and ramped up significantly in the following years, particularly when commissioners agreed to bond $4.5 million for a citywide sidewalk preservation, gap, and infill project. That 15-year bond, which will be paid off in 2034, allowed the city to complete what would have otherwise been a decade or more’s worth of sidewalk repairs in just four years.

The sidewalk preservation portion of that project, which took place from 2017-2019, included repairing over three miles of existing sidewalks with condition assessment ratings of “poor” or “very poor.” That work was evenly distributed across Traverse City, including in neighborhoods like Slabtown, Central, Boardman, Traverse Heights, Kids Creek, and Oak Park, as well as around Northwestern Michigan College, Traverse City Central High School, Eastern Elementary School, and the eastern limits of the city.

In the following two years, from 2019 to 2021, the city tackled the sidewalk gap and infill side of the bond project. That work resulted in over seven new miles of sidewalk being constructed in the Traverse Heights neighborhood and on Garfield Avenue and East Front Street. According to staff documents, the project was largely concentrated in the Traverse Heights neighborhood because the area had been “identified as underserved with pedestrian connectivity.” City commissioners specifically flagged bringing sidewalks to Traverse Heights – notably around the neighborhood’s elementary school – as a top priority when first discussing the bonding project. New sidewalks are now visible in several key corridors of the neighborhood, including Rose, Hannah, Carver, Barlow, Hastings, Garfield, and connecting side streets.

A combination of bonds, annual budgeted funds, and grants helped pay for another “bucket” of sidewalk work: $2.1 million in sidewalk upgrades as part of road reconstruction projects. Since 2016, the city has added 6.1 miles of improved sidewalks as part of the reconstruction of Garland Street, West Front Street, East Eighth Street, Randolph Street, and Parsons Road. Those areas were largely targeted for major street reconstruction projects – or in the case of Parsons Road, a new roundabout – that allowed the city to simultaneously upgrade the walking infrastructure around the project sites.

The fourth and final category of sidewalk repairs included nearly $2 million to build or repair 3.2 miles of sidewalk and trail connections around 10 local K-8 schools through a Safe Routes to School grant. City staff used a “heat index” to gauge where students were living in proximity to schools and the most likely routes they’d take to walk or bike there to identify needed improvements. Norte assisted in conducting “walking audits” where students, parents, and faculty would fan out from schools and identify safety threats or traffic challenges. All of that data helped the city identify specific improvements around schools that would increase accessibility and make it easier for younger students to walk and bike to class, such as the pedestrian island that was installed on Garfield Avenue near the Washington Street intersection by Oak Park Elementary School.

According to a memo from Colburn, city commissioners expressing a commitment to walkability and prioritizing funding for repairs made it possible to tackle nearly $8 million of work in just five years. “The city commission…identified that walkability and respect for pedestrians is a deeply-held value of the citizens of the City of Traverse City,” he wrote. “This is supported by the Traverse City master plan, which emphasizes that ‘transportation choices are important to our vitality and environmental health.’” Noting that the groundwork for the city sidewalk program was laid when commissioners adopted a Complete Streets policy in 2011 enabling “safe and convenient access for all legal road users, including pedestrians,” Colburn said staff were looking forward to “celebrating the completion of the Sidewalk Preservation Project, Sidewalk Gap and Infill Project, Safe Routes to School Project, and several sidewalk projects associated with road reconstruction that resulted in over 20 miles of new or improved sidewalk connections.”

Residents and community groups weighed in ahead of tonight’s meeting in response to the new sidewalk connections, including some neighborhood members who provided comments to staff. “Our family is grateful to now have safe routes for our daughter to travel to friends’ homes, and the independence has resulted in additional confidence,” one Central Neighborhood resident wrote. Another resident in Traverse Heights told staff that the new sidewalks “have really brought us closer to our neighbors. We can chat and wave as we are walking by. And I love what it's done for the kiddos in the area! Sidewalks made it easier and safer for them to get to school, the playground, each other's house, and chase down the ice cream truck.”

According to Groundwork Center, “sidewalks are the essential stitching in the quilt of city life. Pathways have the ability to improve health and create more vibrant neighborhoods. Thank you for prioritizing safe places to walk and roll for all.” Norte, which encouraged its members to attend tonight’s meeting, wrote that “sidewalks transform neighborhoods.” The organization added: “A new sidewalk instantly creates a comfortable route to our favorite places, like coffee shops, grocery stores, parks, and schools. They provide a place to play, jog, walk the dog, or catch up with the neighbor we haven’t seen in ages. Sidewalks clear the way for the community to connect and grow; they allow resiliency to strengthen. They also encourage more of us, of all ages, to move and stay active by design. Sidewalks are a big deal.”

While the city is closing the books on one major chapter in its sidewalk work, other work is still unfolding or yet to come in traffic calming and walkability improvements. In addition to the above work, the city recently extended the Buffalo Ridge Trail to connect to West Middle School and the new TCAPS Montessori school, is working with municipal partners to complete the Boardman Lake Trail loop by next summer, and recently installed a chicane – a serpentine curve in the road that can be created using road paint and signs – on Fair Street to slow speeding and cut-through traffic near the Civic Center.

A trail crossing with a flashing light signal is being installed on Woodmere Avenue near the Traverse Area District Library, and the city has also installed speed feedback signs on Peninsula Drive, Hastings Street, and South Cass street to slow traffic. Lodge says the city and Michigan Department of Transportation have had ongoing conversations about redesigning the intersection of Peninsula Drive/M-37 near Bryant Park, but in the meantime have used barriers to narrow the intersection – a move he told commissioners he thought was effective in slowing traffic coming down the peninsula into town near the popular beach. Lodge says he’s not sure whether those temporary barriers will come down at some point, but that he would “prefer to keep them.” Adding more staff could help the engineering department tackle even more projects going forward: Lodge tells The Ticker a new employee will start this week who was specifically recruited to focus on traffic calming and transportation issues.

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