Less than a year after well-intentioned vandals painted whimsical crosswalks across parts of downtown Tacoma, the city has found $2.5 million to spend this year on pedestrian improvements.
The one-time funding, achieved through a combination of savings and extra revenue in 2013, will be divided so that about $1 million is spent downtown and about $300,000 is spent in each council district. City councilmembers decided on the amount during their mid-point budget meetings.
To determine how the money should be spent, the city is holding neighborhood meetings and conducting an online survey. The results of the outreach not only will affect the use of the $2.5 million, but will provide a prioritized list to guide future projects.
Until now, the city used a site-by-site approach, said Carol Wolfe of the city’s community and economic development department. “Now we’ll have a citywide list that has been vetted by community. It will have engineering,” she said. “As we get additional investment dollars and tax dollars in, we’ll know where to put our dollars. We haven’t had that before.”
How far the $2.5 million will go is an open question.
“If we just have to re-stripe a crosswalk that’s already there, that could be $2,000,” said Mark D’Andrea, the city’s project manager for the pedestrian improvements. “If we have to go out and build ramps, or improve ramps that are there, then you’re talking maybe $5,000 to $10,000 a side.
“The cost really varies from site to site, anywhere from $2,000 to $50,000,” he said. “A single crosswalk can become very expensive.”
The state of Tacoma’s streets is always a hot topic. Potholes usually top the list of complaints, but last summer, pedestrian safety came to the fore after a group of vigilantes painted several streets last spring with crosswalk-like stripes and bike markers. City manager T.C. Broadnax announced in early summer that the painters, if caught, would be prosecuted.
Three of the painters, including the ringleader, told The News Tribune at the time that they had grown frustrated with what they perceived was lack of action surrounding city officials' rhetoric of wanting more walkable and bikeable streets. Many members of the community rallied to support the vigilantes' ideas, if not their methods. City officials countered that there simply isn't enough money.
Last fall, Tacoma voters rejected a ballot measure that would have taxed utility company earnings to provide dedicated funds for street repair.
City staff and spokespeople hedged last week when asked if this new program was a direct result of community reaction to the rogue crosswalk painting, and referred questions to the city manager.
Broadnax, in a statement, said citizen concerns raised during the budget process, at neighborhood councils and community meetings over the ballot measure played a part.
"All of these incidents are part of the conversations the City has been having with advocates about how to involve the community in addressing this issue," he said in the statement.
New Tacoma Neighborhood Council president Elizabeth Burris acknowledges the link.
The city will say “this is not in response to illegal actions by citizens,” Burris said, “but the proof is in the pudding. Downtown got the lion’s share” of funding.
Burris’s neighborhood council, which covers downtown, held a community meeting after the rogue painting to try to broker an agreement: Citizens shouldn’t break the law to make a point, and city officials shouldn’t threaten to prosecute well-intentioned citizens.
That the city council now has dedicated money to the issue is positive, she said.
“I’m elated,” she said. “It gives us hope that our city doesn’t have a blindside as far as citizen input.”
Councilmember Robert Thoms, who represents the neighborhoods targeted by the rogue painters, said the community’s frustration last year was understandable and helpful. It prompted city officials to be methodical about the issue.
“If we could not have substantiated that there was need for additional crosswalks, we would have left it alone,” Thoms said. People’s consternation pushed the city into coming up with a proactive plan.
“This isn’t just lip service,” Thoms said. “We’ve created a process and put money behind it, and I want us to carry this into future.”
During a second round of meetings in early summer, city staff will share community feedback and the resulting draft list of prioritized projects. The city will seek additional feedback on the priority list. Remaining projects will be incorporated into the city’s Transportation Master Plan, and work will begin this year.