By Casey Michel
By Dianna Wray
By Dianna Wray
By Sean Pendergast
By Casey Michel
By Cory Garcia
By Jeff Balke
By Craig Malisow
It's not often that a city employee admits to being physically ill at the sight of poor-quality work done by his department. So when public works department spokesman Wes Johnson says his look at the sidewalks in the Greenspoint area "made me sick," you can bet his bosses will take notice.
Johnson, who scouted the scene after the Press raised questions about the project, isn't exaggerating. On Northborough Drive, a busy residential street lined with apartment complexes, pedestrians had been forced to traverse a narrow pathway burned into the grass until construction crews began laying sidewalks this year. For the elderly, the parents wheeling baby carriages and others who often strolled down Northborough to the malls on Greens Road, the sidewalks should have provided welcome relief.
But neighborhood residents, especially those who use wheelchairs, have a new problem: The sidewalks are more like obstacle courses than navigable pavement, veering dangerously close to foot-high drop-offs onto the street, zigzagging back and forth and angling up and down steep grades that would challenge the most muscled rider.
Still, wheelchairs on Northborough have it better than on other sidewalks nearby. On the I-45 northbound feeder, sidewalks run practically adjacent to the speeding traffic, with no curb as a buffer. At one intersection, a utility box set into the pavement blocks wheelchair access entirely. And on Greens Road just east of Imperial Valley, a fire hydrant sits smack in the middle of the sidewalk.
Though these spots -- and a number of others throughout the city examined by the Press -- are clearly in violation of both city standards and federal guidelines under the Americans With Disabilities Act, they were all inspected after construction. And they all passed, with flying colors.
In the construction universe, sidewalks occupy a pretty low place on the complexity scale, about the same as, say, flatworms in the animal kingdom. To design and build sidewalks according to the rules takes minimal skill and only a little experience. Unless, of course, you don't care about the rules.
Under mayor Bob Lanier, the city spent millions on sidewalks as part of his massive pavement programs. The initial concept had merit -- put sidewalks in front of schools so kids didn't have to walk in the streets and risk injury and death on their way to class.
But like so many programs directed by Lanier and former Public Works Department boss Jimmie Schindewolf, sidewalks became just another opportunity for consulting firms and contractors to fatten their purses with little oversight and accountability.
Just who's to blame for the shoddy sidewalks isn't yet clear, since the city was unaware of any irregularities prior to inquiries by the Press and hasn't yet had time to investigate. But there's no shortage of candidates: The five engineering firms that have routinely been handed multiple $400,000 no-bid contracts to design sidewalks were responsible for the plans. The construction companies that laid the asphalt should have brought deviations from the plans to the attention of the project managers. The inspectors who visited the sites on a daily basis should have halted the work at the first sign of noncompliance. And the managers, including sidewalks program chief George Bravenec, were supposed to ride herd on the whole operation to ensure quality control.
If any of that occurred, it's not reflected in the documentation obtained by the Press. "It appears there may have been a missing element here," understates new Public Works Director Jerry King.
In particular, the fact that the work passed muster with the inspectors should raise huge red flags with the brass. On the Northborough project, the first inspector was Plachette Williams, a trainee who signed the daily work reports even though she should not have been making any decisions. In April, Williams was replaced by John Langley, an employee of Rust/Lichliter Jameson, a consulting firm that has been overseeing various public works paving programs the past five years.
Last November, the Press reported that the city has been distancing itself from oversight of its own public works programs, with predictable results. The final step in that process is to have the program-management consultants supply the inspectors, which virtually removes the city entirely from the design and construction loop. Though public works officials denied at the time that consultant-supplied inspectors would be given any significant responsibilities, that's exactly what appears to have happened in the sidewalks program.
Asked how a fire hydrant could end up centered in a brand-new sidewalk, the department first issued a written statement saying that it couldn't. "In the last six years, that has not happened," the statement read. Confronted with the evidence, however, Jerry King says that changes are clearly in order. "It's obvious to me we must have better oversight of the entire sidewalks program," he says.
Substandard work isn't the program's only iffy aspect. Miles of sidewalk have been built in front of empty acreage or along roads where pedestrians have little or no reason to stroll. Yet practically within spitting distance of some of these locations, side streets jammed with apartment buildings remain sidewalk-free. While the rationale for building some of the sidewalks (thin as it may be) is included in the project files, others are devoid of such information.
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