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Wednesday, May 18,2011

The shape they're in

An audit of Lansing sidewalks to provide extensive data for city, be a catalyst for grants

by Andy Balaskovitz
“Heave with a tree,” Josh Lavigne said to T.J. James while walking north on a sidewalk on Sycamore Street.

“What do I put for this?” James asked Lavigne a few feet farther.


“Oh, just put ‘cracked’ or ‘potholed,’” he replied.


James, a 32-year-old auditor for Jackson
National Life, and Lavigne, a 27-year-old University of Michigan urban
planning student, were walking the Genesee Neighborhood just north of
downtown Lansing Saturday. A “heave with a tree” means a portion of
sidewalk is distorted likely because of the roots underneath.


James and Lavigne were volunteering for
an effort launched by AARP Michigan to audit about 760 miles of
sidewalks in Lansing. The goal is to inventory every sidewalk and
intersection in the city to figure out what needs improvement. That data
will be leveraged for potential grants to help pay for fixes.


Volunteers have completed nearly 20
percent of the “walkability audit,” which began informally last summer.
Organizers hope to complete all of Lansing by October, said Karen
Kafantaris, associate state director for AARP Michigan.


Because the city is not flush with money
to make sidewalk infrastructure improvements — the Lansing City Council
adopted a fiscal year 2012 budget Monday that calls for eliminating the
“sidewalk gap” program and “most routine sidewalk maintenance” — results
of the data will be compiled by Western Michigan University and handed
to the city as a sort of tool when applying for federal and state
grants, Kafantaris said.


“The (Lansing) transportation department
said it would be a good project,” she said. “They hadn’t done an audit
of what they have. They know there are problems, but not necessarily
where they are.”


Kafantaris said the spirit of the project
is in line with Lansing’s “Complete Streets” ordinance that the City
Council adopted in August 2009, the first Michigan municipality to enact
such an ordinance. Complete streets policies commit municipalities to
consider all forms of transportation — non-motorized and motorized —
when planning infrastructure improvements.


Jen McMillon, who helped coordinate
Saturday’s audit, is an AmeriCorps volunteer and also does work for the
Mid-Michigan Environmental Action Council.


“Part of what we’re doing is getting very
specific data of where problem areas are,” she said, adding that for
the city to do this type of work on its own is “expensive” and
time-consuming. “We can hand the report to the city so they can pursue
and expedite the (grant) process.”


The audit includes more than 60 sections
of Lansing and each section of blocks takes one to two hours, McMillon
said. It’s a partnership between the city, Mid-MEAC, AARP and the
Lansing Walking and Bicycling Task Force.


McMillon, a 24-year-old Battle Creek
native who recently graduated from Michigan State University with
degrees in environmental studies and agriscience, said about 10 percent
of sidewalks were audited last year. So what have they found so far?


“We’re finding that even busy places
don’t have complete sidewalks — it’s literally a dirt path,” she said.
On top of that, some ramps that lead down into the street from the
sidewalk are too steep, crosswalk buttons are out of reach for those in
wheelchairs and some crosswalk lights aren’t long enough.


“Take Oakland (Avenue) and Saginaw
(Street) intersections. For someone in their 20s, it’s not a problem to
cross. For the elderly or disabled, it’s a problem,” she said. “We’re
hoping to eliminate all of these things and get funding. So when gas
actually does reach $5 a gallon, we’ll be ready.”


Starting June 7 and for the rest of the
summer, volunteers will get together every Tuesday to scour Lansing
sidewalks. Or they can do it on their own time, Kafantaris said.


“We ask for a lot of information. We want a good report,” she said. “It definitely takes longer than you think.”


Lavigne, who lives in Delta Township and is working on completing his master’s in urban planning, agrees.


“Engineers will have high quality data.
You don’t get anything done without high quality data,” he said. “I was
actually anticipating something a little less in-depth.”


On Saturday, Lavigne was responsible for
intersections, taking inventory of crosswalks, and areas where the
sidewalk meets the road. He covered 12 intersections between Sycamore
Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in just under two hours. His
work was a combination of writing notes, filling in a checklist and
sketching intersections.


“It’s an ambitious project,” he said.


McMillon, of AmeriCorps, said the goal of
the audit is to “create a template for other communities” on
non-motorized transportation infrastructure.


When asked if a lack of funding to
potentially make these improvements is discouraging, McMillon nodded in
affirmation. But that just means cities like Lansing will have to get
creative.


“I think people don’t know all the
options out there,” she said, referring to various federal and state
grants. “I think people have low faith when it comes to that.”


But aren’t grants competitive and not guaranteed? 


“At least we’ll have the data,” she said.
“Federal funding is available, but that’s needs-based. You can’t just
tell them there’s a need — you need numbers.”

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