Pittsburgh, PA

Sidewalks are public transportation infrastructure, so why doesn't the city maintain them?

The Homepage, published by Hazelwood Initiative

By Juliet Martinez 

Cracked. Uneven. A tripping hazard.

At the Hazelwood community meeting in February, Pastor Lutual Love stood up to speak. He said he was tired of unsafe neighborhood sidewalks.

“Those sidewalks are lifted up. They’ve been lifted for years, and we’ve been asking for help.” He said city money should fix basic neighborhood infrastructure like sidewalks. But it turns out the problem is more complicated.  

Sidewalks in Greater Hazelwood are often in poor condition. The Greater Hazelwood Neighborhood Plan lists sidewalks among its top three mobility priorities. “It is important that the approach to filling in the sidewalk infrastructure follow the community’s goals of development without displacement,” the plan reads. “And not penalize low-income property owners for whom sidewalk repair is cost-prohibitive.”

A cracked Hazelwood sidewalk in need of replacement.Photo by Juliet Martinez

In April, I called Mike Panzitta, project manager for the Irvine Avenue sidewalk project, at the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI). He said the part of a property where sidewalks and curbs lie is a public right of way. It isn’t taxable, but in the eyes of the city, it is the responsibility of the homeowner. If the city owns the land, DOMI is responsible for the sidewalk.  

What can Pittsburghers do to make sidewalks safer without burdening moderate- and low-income households?  

Sidewalks are essential for people to walk and wheel safely around the neighborhood, whether for health, commerce or to get to public transit. Unsafe sidewalks can keep people at home unless they have access to a car.  

To complain about an unsafe sidewalk, residents can call 311. A 311 operator I spoke with said they notify the Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections. If an inspector finds the sidewalk in poor condition, they cite the property owner for a code violation. If the sidewalk is not fixed after three citations, the owner will have to go before a magistrate. Then they can either pay a fine or get the sidewalk fixed. A new sidewalk runs about $8 per square foot. 

For city-owned properties, 311 sends complaints to DOMI. Mr. Panzitta said he hopes with higher staffing levels the department will have greater agility in responding to sidewalk complaints.  

But what about privately-owned sidewalks? How can the city address the mobility needs of residents who use walkers, wheelchairs and strollers? Could the city make Greater Hazelwood and all Pittsburgh sidewalks safely walkable?  

I asked Councilman Corey O’Connor. He said the city does rebuild a sidewalk if a tree has damaged it. When I asked if the city could take responsibility for all sidewalk maintenance, he was skeptical. He said it would involve going onto private property, and the cost would be astronomical. 

But PWSA goes onto private property to replace lead lines, right? Councilman O'Connor said the cost of that project only proves his point. According to pgh20.com, PWSA has spent more than $100 million on lead-line replacement.  

But can it be done?

“There is always enough money to be solving our issues,” said Dan Yablonsky, Pittsburghers for Public Transit’s director of communications and development. “It's just, you know, where are our public priorities?”  

Mr. Yablonsky asked why private citizens should be responsible for public transportation infrastructure. And why, in such a wealthy country, resources are not distributed so sidewalk maintenance and access is more equitable?

“It is not a sustainable position or policy to be putting public infrastructure on private homeowners, many of whom are completely unable to afford it,” he said.  

City-funded sidewalk replacement is less pie-in-the-sky than I thought at first. Take the Irvine Avenue sidewalk project. It offers an idea of how the city could be responsible for all sidewalks. Some of the parcels are private property, but the city code allows DOMI to build sidewalks on private property when needed. The owner doesn't even have to consent.

To Councilman O’Connor’s point, it would take a lot of money and time to create a whole city of safe sidewalks. But delays are nothing new. People started agitating for a new sidewalk on Irvine Avenue at least three years ago.  

And where is the money for the Irvine Avenue sidewalk coming from? Mr Panzitta said the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development pitched in $200,000; another $1 million came from the $335 million Pittsburgh received as part of the American Rescue Plan. The work is part of DOMI’s Critical Sidewalk Gap program, funded under the Ramp and Public Sidewalk category in the capital budget. The city code allows the city to build a sidewalk on private property and send the owner the bill. But, Mr. Panzitta emailed, even though the city can charge for building a sidewalk, they haven't done it so far.  

When we spoke, he said it comes down to focus, preparation, and devoting resources to our collective priorities. Even though it would take a lot of work for the city to take over sidewalks, it is not impossible.  

“With a plan and with the right resources and with the right staff,” he said. “You can do anything, right?”

Correction notice: The May print issue of The Homepage erroneously reports that the Department of Community and Economic Development contributed $120,000 to the Irvine Street sidewalk project and says the Critical Sidewalk Gap program is part of Move Forward Pgh.

Homepage publisher, Hazelwood Initiative, Inc., is a community development corporation and a registered community organization. Hazelwood Initiative, Inc., does not profit by or receive compensation from contributors or organizations for mentions or links in Homepage articles.

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The Homepage is a print newspaper delivered monthly to households in Greater Hazelwood, Glen Hazel, Greenfield, Hays, New Homestead, Lincoln Place and The Run. Hazelwood Initiative, Inc., a community-based nonprofit, publishes The Homepage through a grant from the City of Pittsburgh and advertising revenue from local businesses and organizations. The mission of Hazelwood Initiative, as a community-based development corporation, is to build a stronger Hazelwood through inclusive community development. Sonya Tilghman, Executive Director of Hazelwood Initiative, Inc. (she/her) Juliet Martinez, Managing Editor of The Homepage (they/them) Sarah Kanar, Layout and Design of The Homepage(she/her)

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