May 31, 2012 | Volume 42, No.22

Partial sidewalk work irks leaders, merchants

State Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, said this week a patchwork replacement of sidewalk and curbs downtown can’t be fixed this year, due to funding constraints.

“It’s looking semi-tacky now, but it’s a start. If we finish the job next year, it’ll be okay,” Thomas said about a state Department of Transportation paving project that’s replacing only a portion of the sidewalks and curbs along Main Street.

As currently funded, the $2.7 million project is leaving even deteriorating sections of curbs and sidewalks in place, creating a half-completed look and raising questions from business owners, residents and advocates of Main Street revitalization.

“Who’d have guessed they’d do only part of the sidewalks? It’s mind-boggling, It’s like me only shaving half my legs,” said Kristine Harder, a Main Street boutique owner who also is a member of the Downtown Revitalization Committee. “The state is treating us like an ugly step-sister. They wouldn’t have done this in Juneau.”

Grocery store owner Mike Ward said customers have tripped on gouges in curbs left by snowplows in front of his store.

“The curbs are in terrible shape. They’re missing chunks. It’s a real liability. I guess they’re waiting for somebody to file a lawsuit,” Ward said. He questioned the wisdom of replacing sidewalks in front of the closed Elks Lodge but leaving aging sections in front of his operating businesses.

Ward said he looked at small-scale plans for the work last summer, particularly at cut-outs for his parking lot, but assumed all sidewalks adjacent to the road would be done. “I was astonished.”

The situation points to a need for better communication between the state and borough, Ward said. “There should have been someone bridging the gap so all of this could have been taken care of at once.”

The questions aren’t only about aesthetics and safety. There’s apparently also one about the grade of the pavement.

Roger Schnabel, president of the local company that’s contracting to do the work, said he told DOT officials he couldn’t guarantee a continuous grade on Main Street, due to having to try to match up new and remaining sections of curbs. Road pavement is contoured to the height of curbs, he said.

“I wanted to do a first-class project … (but) if an existing curb has an inconsistency, so will my pavement,” resulting in small rises or dips in the paved surface, Schnabel said.

State DOT spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said the scope of the project is related to its funding source, federal highway rehabilitation funds, which are typically limited to resurfacing paved surfaces.

When state officials looked at the project on site, they recognized that sections of curbs and sidewalk, including cut-outs for pedestrians and driveways, weren’t to grades required by federal disability law. “When they got out there, they said, ‘We have to do some sidewalk, curb and gutter.’”

Woodrow expressed confidence in remaining sections of sidewalks and curbs. “Concrete is pretty sturdy. You don’t have to replace it as often as pavement. (The state) is confident it should hold up for a while.” He said it wasn’t “too uncommon” for DOT to revisit sections of sidewalk needing work.

DOT’s Woodrow also discounted Schnabel’s concerns about an inconsistent road grade due to variations in the curb. “When they do the design work, they take that into account and that should be fixed in the field. There shouldn’t be any significant inconsistencies between the existing and new curb, gutter and sidewalk going in.”

Schnabel said the Haines Borough faced a similar situation recently along First Avenue South, where the job initially didn’t include replacing a section of curb between Sheldon Museum and the Senior Center. The job was changed to replace the curb, ensuring a consistent grade there, Schnabel said.

Schnabel said he’s gotten some complaints about the work, but he has to build to the project’s specifications. He said there were efficiencies to be gained by doing all the sidewalks and curbs at the same time.

Rep. Thomas said replacing the remaining sections of sidewalk might come next summer, when the state will be building sidewalks along Beach Road and Old Haines Highway. If not, Thomas said he might be able to direct money to the borough for the work, although it was unclear this week if the borough would be permitted to work on the state’s road.

At Tuesday’s assembly meeting, public facilities director Brian Lemcke said project plans “have been on the table for more than a year” but said he may have been able to better broadcast that information.

“I’m shocked they’d do a project of that magnitude and not replace everything,” said assemblywoman Joanne Waterman.

Assemblywoman Debra Schnabel suggested the borough take unspent municipal road money to fill the project’s gaps. “(The sidewalk) is in terrible shape. There are holes that people will trip in.”

But facilities director Lemcke said he didn’t think the borough could afford to do that at the expense of other borough projects.

Borough manager Mark Earnest said the project needs doing. “Whatever happens there, those sidewalks should be fixed. It looks half-done.”