School sidewalk plan runs into federal red tape
When does negotiating layers of federal red tape become more trouble than it’s worth?
Palisade is wrestling with that question now, after a seemingly simple plan to build a couple of blocks of needed sidewalk near Taylor Elementary School ran into a regulatory roadblock that has town officials rethinking their options.
The town received approval earlier this year for a grant of more than $66,000 through the national Safe Routes to School program, something Town Administrator Rich Sales hoped could be used to pour sidewalks along Brentwood Drive to connect the school with the busy U.S. Highway 6 nearby. Students’ safety is an issue as they have to negotiate a gravel area devoid of crosswalks or other markings, as well as a parking lot.
But when Sales and his team met with Colorado Department of Transportation officials to learn how the grant would be administered, he was “unpleasantly surprised” at some of the onerous requirements attached to the project.
Specifically, that it would be at least a year before construction could begin.
And that the town would have to hire a “3/4-time staff position” to manage the grant itself.
And that a site supervisor would have to be hired for the entire length of the project.
“We would be paying a licensed structural engineer to watch them pour a sidewalk,” Sales said. “It sounds crazy, but it is actually what they told us.”
All told, the project is now estimated to cost two and a half to three times more than originally planned.
CDOT is essentially a pass-through agency for the Federal Highway Administration when it comes to directing Safe Routes to School grant recipients through the process.
Sales was clear that his frustration is aimed above CDOT at the federal level, where the program requirements come from on high.
Sales’ original push for the federal money seemed to him a safe bet, as he has used other federal grant programs in the past for municipal projects in his former role as community development director for the city of Delta.
“We figured on (some federal regulation),” Sales said. “But what I didn’t figure on were these intense administrative timelines … or the costs of oversight to make sure that we knew how to pour a 4-inch sidewalk.”
CDOT spokeswoman Nancy Shanks confirmed the general FHWA requirements Sales mentioned regarding Safe Routes to School.
She said all grant recipients face the same regulatory and planning hurdles and that the program hasn’t changed since its inception in 2005.
That’s little consolation for Town Trustee Bennett Price.
“This is just typical government. All of a sudden they’re saying it’s going to be three times the cost — and unless you’ve got the money ready to go, we’re not going to support it.”
So what now?
Sales said CDOT put forth the idea of possibly “phasing” the project, where the town could spend the money it’s been granted, then seek more grant money for the rest of the project.
“The challenge that I think I see with that is I have to go through this incredible process twice to get the money that I need,” Sales said.
Another option would be for the town to simply fund the project out of its capital reserves, which are tight, if the community need is immediate enough and the town can swing the cost of the project.
The opportunity might also be ripe for someone from the private sector to sweep in and fund the safety project, avoiding government red tape altogether, Sales said.
He hoped that community partners in the form of oil and gas companies, or other large corporations, could donate the money needed to simply get the job done.