Alejandrina Guzman was born and raised in Fort Worth. As a wheelchair user, she became conditioned to accessibility issues in the city, be it cracked concrete, gaps in the sidewalks or a lack of curb cuts.
Then she moved to Austin for college.
“When I was over there, for me it was a big realization that I could be pretty independent, using the sidewalks and public transportation,” she said.
Guzman moved back to Fort Worth a year ago. Her newfound independence didn’t follow. Instead, she was greeted with the crumbling sidewalks she’d known all her life, able to see their flaws with fresh eyes.
For many people, the first instinct when encountering such a problem is to contact the city. In the case of sidewalks, however, maintenance is the responsibility of private homeowners and businesses.
“That’s so upsetting,” Guzman said. “Because not only does that put the burden on people who cannot access sidewalks, it also burdens the homeowner.”
Fort Worth sidewalk ordinance initially developed in the 60s
The way Fort Worth handles sidewalk maintenance is based on a code initially developed in the ’60s, according to Transportation and Public Works director William Johnson. If homeowners don’t maintain the sidewalk in front of their property, they can be cited for a misdemeanor under city ordinance.
“The reality is that whatever the situation was back then, compared to today, it just doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Dallas has a similar ordinance, but provides a cost-share program for property owners so they have to pay for only 50% of the work. Austin takes ultimate responsibility for maintaining sidewalks. Houston requires property owners to maintain sidewalks, but the ordinance doesn’t have any penalties for failing to repair sidewalks in disrepair.
Fort Worth’s misdemeanor citations have been paused for at least the past 15 years, Johnson said, because of equity concerns.
“It’s not really reasonable to think that the average person on a fixed income in an older neighborhood would be able to afford to repair it,” Johnson said.
If people call to report cracked sidewalks in front of their homes, they’ll be informed about the ordinance, but city workers won’t issue a citation.
“Imagine someone calling and saying, ‘Hey my sidewalk is broken, my curb is broken,’ and then we serve them with a misdemeanor,” Johnson said.
City uses informal repair system for sidewalks
Although Fort Worth doesn’t issue citations, that doesn’t mean the city is taking responsibility for repairing sidewalks. Fort Worth doesn’t have a fund for sidewalk maintenance and repair, despite an estimated 103 miles of sidewalks currently in poor condition.
It comes down to a numbers game. Johnson pointed toward the high cost of filling sidewalk gaps — estimated at $792,000 per mile, with 3,395 miles to fill. The City Council adopted the Active Transportation Plan, aimed at filling those gaps, in 2019. That project alone, which includes other transportation construction, has an estimated cost of $3.3 billion.
“Just by comparison, the entire bond for 2022, including parks and police and fire and libraries, transportation and everything all together, was $560 million,” Johnson said. “It’s the biggest bond package that the city has ever done … If we spent every dime just on sidewalks, it would still take multiple (bond) cycles to get to all of the costs for sidewalk gaps.”
In 2021, the transportation and public works department received 336 requests for sidewalk maintenance. Of those, only 71 were addressed because of ‘extremely poor condition.’
Alejandra Peña, a Northside resident, said she’s been waiting for sidewalk and road maintenance since 2008. Her sidewalk is pulling away from the ground, and potholes litter the streets in her neighborhood.
“I used to be able to ride my bike through there and stuff and now I’m like, ‘Wow, I remember when this used to be flat when I was in my younger years,’” Peña said.
Johnson said his department moves money from other activities, like road construction or maintenance, to fix the most severely deteriorated sidewalks.
“That’s kind of how we’ve been informally dealing with this massive problem,” he said.
The sidewalks in Peña’s neighborhood haven’t deteriorated enough to warrant city intervention, but she said they already pose a safety concern.
“We have a lot of people that have been here for many, many years,” she said. “And they’re elderly people, you know. They could trip and fall getting groceries, walking on the sidewalk. I mean, it’s not even safe for kids that ride bikes and skateboards or people with electric chairs nowadays. It’s very dangerous.”
City in the midst of sidewalk condition assessment
Every three years, the city commissions a pavement condition index assessment to determine the state of Fort Worth’s streets and what needs to be repaired. This year, sidewalks are included in the assessment.
“It’s a technical report that will give us data on the condition of the sidewalks, streets, curbs, ramps, etc.,” Johnson said. “And we’ll use that as the basis for programming future and capital projects related to those things.”
Johnson said it will likely be another six months before that assessment becomes public. While more money could be put into sidewalk repair as a result of the assessment, he said it’s unlikely the ordinance placing responsibility on property owners will change.
“I know from a development and new development and redevelopment standpoint, I don’t see those things changing,” he said.
The Northside is one of several areas that has already seen an influx in city funding to improve sidewalks. It hasn’t helped everyone. Hector Lugo, a Fort Worth resident whose mother lives on Harrington Avenue, said the city repaired all of the sidewalks in his mother’s neighborhood except hers.
“A guy over at the city program said my mom’s street isn’t listed on the plan,” Lugo said. “If I had the time, I would’ve gone to City Hall and spoken on it. Compared to the other streets, my mom’s was the worst one. She’s had the house for 42 years.”
When Guzman wants to get somewhere in Fort Worth using her wheelchair, she has to navigate a maze of sidewalks — some with curb cuts and some without. Often, she’ll get to the end of a sidewalk, only to realize she can’t access the street with her wheelchair. Then she has to backtrack and find a new path to her destination. Cracks in neighborhood sidewalks can pose a safety hazard, she said, and take away her ability to navigate the city on her own.
“I kind of saw Austin as the norm,” she said. “Then I moved back, and I was like, ‘Oh wait, this is really bad.’”
Guzman said without a designated funding program for sidewalk repairs, it’s hard to believe the city cares about the issue.
“When there’s a line item, that means you are valuing that specific initiative,” she said. “In this case with sidewalks, if that’s not part of the funding plan, then what are we doing?”