DENVER – Denver’s Neighborhood Sidewalk Repair Program is decades behind schedule and doesn’t ensure sidewalks are accessible to everyone, according to a new audit from Denver Auditor Timothy M. O’Brien, CPA.
“Public spaces like sidewalks should be accessible for everyone,” Auditor O’Brien said. “I don’t think this program is benefiting anyone right now. Neither the homeowners adjacent to the sidewalks nor people with varying mobility needs are served by the way the program is currently setup.”
City leaders chose not to require compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act guidance in its rules and regulations. City officials also severely underestimated how many sidewalks in Denver would need repairs and how many private homeowners would need to make repairs, according to the audit team’s findings.
Our audit examined how the Department of Transportation & Infrastructure designed the program starting in 2018 and how inspections and repairs for sidewalks have been implemented since then.
In Denver, sidewalk repair has been the responsibility of the adjacent homeowner since the 1950s. In 2017, City Council established a fund to kick-start the sidewalk repair program to proactively address sidewalks across the city that are “damaged, uneven, or sloping excessively.”
City officials divided the city into 11 regions to prioritize repairs based in part on which areas had the lowest rates of car ownership, highest rates of people with disabilities, and the most damaged sidewalks close to schools and transit.
Program managers set an initial goal of completing one of the 11 regions each year. However, the first region remains less than 25% complete and city administrators estimate it will take more than 50 years to complete the program.
“At the current rate, by the time the city finishes inspecting every region, the first regions will be long past due for repairs all over again,” Auditor O’Brien said.
Auditors also found the original rules and regulations of the program were not designed for compliance with ADA standards for accessible routes.
- The program’s regulations do not require a 5-foot-wide passing space every 200 feet when a sidewalk is less than five feet wide.
- It allows for cross slopes — how steep the sidewalk section is from side to side — of up to 5%, instead of the ADA maximum of 2.08%.
- The regulations allow for elevation changes between sections of the sidewalk of up to three-quarters of an inch, which is above the ADA maximum of half an inch.
Uneven sidewalks, sloped sidewalks, and excessively narrow sidewalks can create real mobility challenges for people with physical disabilities, seniors who have other mobility needs, and parents with small children in strollers. This means some of Denver’s residents do not have equal access to safe and accessible sidewalks.
“I did a walking tour of some of Denver’s sidewalks with community members who had varying mobility needs,” Auditor O’Brien said. “And I saw how people who use wheelchairs or how parents with strollers could be forced into the street or need to take long detours just to get around their neighborhoods.”
Because the sidewalk program was not designed to comply with ADA requirements, the audit team found some sidewalks that have already been repaired in the first region do not comply with these requirements. In other words, homeowners likely paid to repair some sidewalks and those sidewalks still are not accessible to everyone.
Department of Transportation & Infrastructure personnel could not provide a reasoning for their rules and regulations not aligning with ADA standards. They told our audit team the decision was made by previous managers. They said the decision was likely made to keep homeowners’ costs as low as possible.
Our audit team also found the Neighborhood Sidewalk Repair Program does not offer affordability options to all Denver residents. To help offset the cost of mandatory repairs through this program, the city offers payment plans and affordability discounts for homeowners who qualify. However, property owners outside the current region in the program are not eligible for affordability options.
The city has other existing sidewalk repair programs, including a complaint-based option. Repairs made after a complaint to the city in other regions are not eligible for assistance, even though those repairs are also city-mandated.
We found department managers underestimated the number of neighborhood sidewalks needing repair and how many of those sidewalk repairs would be the responsibility of private homeowners. About 80% of all sidewalks inspected in the first region so far have required repairs — at least six times more than the department estimated. Homeowners were responsible for 80% of those repairs — double what the city predicted.
By underestimating the scope of the program, city officials created unachievable timelines for staff and incorrect expectations for residents.
As of Sept. 2, 2020, the Department of Transportation & Infrastructure reported it completed only about 1,100 inspections in the first region. The program’s inspector resigned in December 2019, after the last inspection performed on October 25, 2019. The department put plans to fill that position on hold in spring 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Officials also say they relaxed their proactive approach to avoid overburdening residents with repair costs. They officially put the program on hiatus in May with plans to resume in July.
Administrators tell us they have had informal conversations about fixing the program’s slow progress — such as possibly hiring more inspectors, integrating the program with street maintenance, altering the funding of the program, expanding affordability options, returning to a complaint-based only program, or even shutting down the program.
“The intention of this audit is not to tell the city to give up on something that’s clearly difficult,” Auditor O’Brien said. “Instead, I hope the city will use our findings and recommendations to get this important program back on track.”
Without established goals for and ongoing monitoring and evaluation of completed sidewalks repairs, the department cannot ensure repairs are meeting all relevant standards and that the program is meeting its intended outcomes. Our recommendations include conducting a needs assessment, updating the program design, reviewing the city ordinance for possible changes, enforcing ADA standards and department regulations, monitoring program performance data, and documenting policies and procedures in several areas.
The Department of Transportation & Infrastructure agreed to all our recommendations.