Missoula City Council begins review of sidewalks, costs, payment options Wednesday

“I hope we are leading our discussion on why sidewalks are important for safety reasons on numerous levels,” said Councilwoman Gwen Jones, right. “So I’m looking forward to refocusing this on Wednesday and not discussing if we’re going to do sidewalks in the future but how we’re going to do sidewalks, because I think they are very important.” (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Missoula City Council members on Monday praised Mayor John Engen for pulling the plug on a controversial – and outrageously expensive – sidewalk project in the Slant Streets neighborhood.

But they’re not giving up on pavement, and at least one councilwoman – Ward 3’s Gwen Jones – said she wants the discussion to take a new direction.

The proposed Slant Street project was in Jones’ ward, and would have seen some homeowners saddled with nearly $40,000 invoices for the installation of sidewalks, curbs and gutters.

After a number of meetings and an outcry on social media, Engen announced last Friday that he was suspending the city’s master sidewalk plan, including the Slant Streets project, pending a comprehensive review.

“Sidewalks are an important part of our transportation system, and we need more of them, but we can’t break the banks of adjacent property owners to build them,” Engen said in the announcement. “We’ve been working with an imperfect system for a long time, and the council has worked hard to temper costs, but the price of the program is out of hand. We need to create a better, more equitable method for building and paying for sidewalks.”

Engen ordered an internal review of the city’s sidewalk program – for years a bone of contention with homeowners and City Council members – and promised to have a “less expensive, strategic sidewalk plan” ready for the 2020 budget cycle next summer.

That review begins in the City Council’s Public Works Committee at 2 p.m. Wednesday.

“ I guess I would like to reframe the narrative a little bit,” Jones said Monday night. “I understand and completely empathize that the numbers were high, shockingly high, and I think it’s absolutely the right thing to pull back on this and figure out the next steps.

“But I hope we are leading our discussion on why sidewalks are important for safety reasons on numerous levels. … So I’m looking forward to refocusing this on Wednesday and not discussing if we’re going to do sidewalks in the future but how we’re going to do sidewalks, because I think they are very important.”

Committee chairman Jordan Hess said he has a number of proposals to start Wednesday’s discussion, but wants to introduce those at the meeting.

However, on Monday, he did share that part of the discussion will be guided by the pedestrian master plan – “which has been underway since the last time we had a sidewalk issue.”

“A lot of good work has been generated out of that and a lot of potential modifications to the existing system have been suggested – how to do this better in the future,” Hess said.

Councilwoman Julie Armstrong thanked Engen for “sidelining the sidewalk project” and said she’s received “a lot of calls from folks who were very happy.”

But Jones said she’s going to push hard for a continued sidewalk program.

“And a very parallel and connected conversation is shoveling our sidewalks so that they are safe for people,” she said. “We spent a lot of time on that project also and getting that to a good place where I think the fees and costs are reasonable.

“But I also feel like lost in the discussion is the safety factor and why this is important.”

Wednesday afternoon’s meeting is open to the public in the City Council Chambers.

“Citizens aren’t happy with the program, council members aren’t happy with the program, staff members aren’t happy with the program and, it turns out, I’m not happy with the program,” Engen said. “We can, and will, do better.”