The petitions go back to a time when DC homeowners paid half the cost of constructing a sidewalk in front of their homes. When DDOT assumed the entire cost of constructing new sidewalks in 2002, the petition requirement remained on the books.
In 2009, District transportation policy changed to require a sidewalk on at least one side of any street where pedestrians can legally walk. The policy prioritized sidewalks along roadways that were being rebuilt anyway; streets close to transit hubs, schools and parks; and any street where traffic posed a hazard to pedestrians.
However, we soon learned politics could overcome policy. That year, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty nixed a network of sidewalks in North Portal Estates, an area bereft of sidewalks. The neighborhood was filling up with new families who wanted them, but the old guard who didn’t held sway.
The policy did set the framework for the DC Council’s Priority Sidewalk Act of 2010. Council member Mary Cheh introduced the bill in 2009 – and when it became law sidewalk activists breathed a sigh of relief. Now, they thought, a single homeowner with the right political ties could no longer block the construction of a sidewalk.They were surprised to discover, however, that they still needed gather homeowner signatures. In 2011, when the residents of the community and Iona’s pedestrian initiative pushed DDOT for a sidewalk on the north side of busy Albemarle between 38th and 39th Streets, they were told by the Ward 3 transportation planner that they needed a petition. The old policy, requiring a majority of homeowners on a block to sign on, was still on the books.
Iona Senior Services pushed for revisions to this policy through the Ward 3 priority sidewalk report presented to DDOT in 2013. Still, when DDOT’s priority-setting policy became official in in January 2015, petitions remained part of the process. Departmental Order #1-2015 gives priority to locations that provide access to schools, parks and recreational facilities and transit stops, or are a safety hazard to pedestrians. The policy also takes into consideration community support, which is not defined. Priority is also given to residents who petition to have a sidewalk. In essence, petitions are not required but provide additional weight.
These policies will be tested as DDOT begins work on the first batch of sidewalks identified as priorities under its new policy. The list DDOT provided to Forest Hills Connection focuses on arterials such as Military Road, which has no sidewalk between 28th and 30th Streets. Arizona Avenue between Loughboro Road and MacArthur Avenue is also in the first batch. In addition to being an arterial, it is a bus route with bus stops, and less than a quarter mile to an elementary school. Sidewalk gaps on arterials, a city’s busiest streets, provide the greatest safety hazard to pedestrians.
Homeowners who live on the targeted blocks will be given a 60-day notice period. DDOT has not sent any notices yet, so it will start with areas that abut DDOT land with no homeowners. If you want a sidewalk on your block, here’s where petitions might come in handy.
George Branyan, the DDOT pedestrian coordinator who has taken on this project, told me he thought petitions from homeowners, once they receive notice, could hasten the process. In other words, a strong show of support from homeowners on a block would enable DDOT to start work before the 60-day comment period ends. So, petitions are still with us and could play a useful role in getting sidewalk sooner rather than later.
What remains unclear is how DDOT will handle segments which are heavily weighted as priorities, but do not have community support as opposed to those projects that have community support but are not high priorities in other respects.