Sidewalk repairs a constant struggle

Charleston recently began addressing its uneven sidewalks by paying contractors to use concrete saws to slice off raised sections. The treatment often leaves smooth triangular sections like these off Church Street.

The ease of walking places gives many Charleston neighborhoods, especially downtown, a certain charm and appeal.

Mature trees lining the street also add an aura of livability, as they shade homes and streets.

But these features often conflict, as tree roots grow and gradually bulge through the Lowcountry soil, pushing upward against the concrete, brick and bluestones of the city's sidewalks.

Surfaces become uneven. People trip and fall. Sometimes the city has to pay -- or at least its insurer does.

The city inspects the sidewalks regularly, and relies on tips to find problem spots, but even with all that, city and state officials are unsure of how well they are keeping up with the maintenance -- and smoothing over future trips, falls and legal claims.

What money there is also is used to make sidewalks handicapped accessible -- even to build new ones.

Mark Hunter, assistant state maintenance engineer with the S.C. Department of Transportation, regularly visits Charleston, walks its sidewalks and is very familiar with the challenge the city faces.

"It's almost like hiking," he says. "You've got to watch where you step."

Not enough money

Charleston doesn't keep track of how many of its sidewalk problems are caused by trees, heavy vehicles, the weather or utility issues.

In fact, its Public Service Department isn't sure how many hundreds of miles of sidewalks exist within the city.

That's partly because many of the city's sidewalks, like many of its streets, are technically owned by the state.

Public Service Director Laura Cabiness says the state is responsible for about 70 percent of all city streets downtown -- and the sidewalks alongside them.

"As a practical matter, they, like us, don't have the funding to take care of it all," she says. "I think we could do more, but the city is like many areas of the country. You've got a lot of aging infrastructure that needs attention -- roads, water lines, sewer lines, lots of stuff."

Meanwhile, the city takes a sort of triage approach, responding to reports of problems and fixing the worst first.

Despite budget difficulties, the city and state have come up with new ways to repair many more miles of sidewalks than in previous years.

Private property

The city's Streets and Sidewalks' division, which Cabiness oversees, has 17 job positions dedicated to sidewalk repair, though only 10 are currently filled as the city struggles through lean fiscal times.

Trees aren't the only threat to sidewalks. Heavy trucks can crush sidewalks, while failing water lines or drainage pipes can undermine them from below.

And some sidewalks are on private property and aren't owned by -- and won't be repaired by -- either the city or state, says Mike Metzler, deputy director of operations in the city's Public Service Department.

"We get calls about grocery store sidewalks, and we have to explain that (the city can't work on private property) to them," he says.

Also, the College of Charleston, not the city or the S.C. Department of Transportation, maintains the distinct herringbone brick sidewalks around its campus.

The DOT maintains about 3,891 miles of sidewalk across the state, though it can't say how many of those miles are in any particular city.

Hunter says the agency spends about $750,000 a year maintaining them, but it also changed its road resurfacing contracts a few years ago to require contractors to make neighboring sidewalks handicapped accessible and to fix any major problem.

That adds more than $1 million more a year into the mix, and also explains the recent sidewalk work being done along East Bay and Coming streets.

Still, Hunter says the state is uncertain how frequently sidewalks need repairs -- and how well or how poorly the state is keeping up with them.

"The sidewalk cycle is really unknown," he says. "It's not the main function, so it's not studied as much."

Stepping up repairs

One device that has helped the city ramp up the number of sidewalk repairs is a relatively new horizontal saw that can cut a concrete slab that has risen.

Shaving the elevated piece of concrete so it's level with neighboring slabs is a quick, inexpensive repair.

The city has done this through contractors, and it has allowed the city to double the amount of repairs done in a given year.

The city's sidewalk repair doesn't revolve solely around damaged, uneven sidewalks. Since the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, there has been a push to make sidewalks more accessible.

This work mostly includes ramping down sidewalks at the corners and installing "truncated domes," dimpled strips that let pedestrians with vision problems sense they are nearing a street corner.

Again, the city is unsure how much of this work remains to be done, but Cabiness says, "It's a huge job. It's been a huge job for everybody since (ADA) came out."

The city's lowest priority are repairs done for aesthetic reasons -- to make the sidewalks look better.

"We can't make the new sidewalk match the color of the old sidewalk," Metzler says. "We've had that kind of complaint before."

The city tries to maintain the uniqueness of its sidewalk materials, even though it can cost more and requires a crew with special skills.

Not only are some downtown sidewalks made of brick and bluestone, there are some small sections made of granite block, sandstone, even marble squares.

Get on the list

Developers often build new sidewalks as part of new projects, and some big highway contracts also include new sidewalks, but installing new ones into already developed areas can be hard, if not impossible, to do.

Outside downtown, many Charleston neighborhoods were built without sidewalks, and the city has a long list of requests to add them.

But it is unlikely to go deep into neighborhoods to add sidewalks, even if everyone agrees they are needed, Cabiness says.

Instead, the city and county build most new sidewalks, such as the recent ones installed along Magwood and Amberly roads, to knit together neighborhoods with nearby schools, shopping and community centers.

The city has built fewer than 20 percent of the new sidewalks requested in recent years. "All it takes is one phone call from one person to get on the list," Cabiness says, "(but) some of it may never get done."

The issue -- as with sidewalk repairs -- stems back to dollars, she says, adding, "It's just competing with all the other necessities of running a city."

Sidewalk repair requests:

2008: 245

2009: 252

2010: 298

2011: 51 (through March 31)

Source: City of Charleston Public Service Department

Using outside contractors in recent years has enabled Charleston to fix more than twice as many sidewalks:

2008: 8,318 (feet repaired)

2009: 7,066

2010: 20,668

2011: 24,000 (Projected goal)

Source: City of Charleston

Call Charleston’s Citizen Support Center at 724-7311 or visit its website: mygovhelp.org/charlestonsc/_cs/supporthome.aspx. Be prepared to describe the exact location and nature of the problem.

The city’s Ombudsman’s Office can be reached at 724-3745 or by email at: sheehanb@ci.charleston.sc.us