The sidewalk at Ross and Pearl was gone, forcing you into the street. (Photo by Matt Goodman)

Urbanism

Dallas Doesn’t Think It’s Charging Contractors Enough to Occupy Public Sidewalks and Streets

More good news for pedestrians who are tired of the construction mess.

More than a year after the city started fining contractors for illegally occupying streets and sidewalks, staff believes they aren’t going far enough. As such, they’re asking for Council approval to charge contractors higher fees to work in the public right-of-way, both as a way to generate revenue and to get them to finish their jobs quicker. They also want to increase daily fines.

The City Council’s transportation committee was briefed on the plan on Tuesday, learning that Dallas has the lowest lane and sidewalk closure fees of all the major cities in Texas. That causes streets and sidewalks to remain closed longer than needed and sometimes to even be used for storage of equipment.

Under the new fees, a 61-day closure of a 100-foot lane would jump from $366 to $1,514. The fee per square foot doubles after 121 days and triples after 180, hopefully incentivizing contractors to hurry up. (If you’re in and out within 60 days, you’ll pay just $.012 per square foot a day. If your work takes up the right of way for 180 or more, you’re looking at $.096. It hikes to $0.288 a day if your job occupies a second lane or sidewalk.) The city estimates it will increase revenue from fees from $1 million to $3 million in 2021 and, as a byproduct, “incentivize contractors to remove their barricades as early as possible.”

If you’ve been following this website for any amount of time, you’ll recognize our Dallas Hates Pedestrians series. North Oak Cliff Council member Chad West even brought it up during the meeting. The very first of those, published a whole two years ago, expressed pent-up frustration over this very issue: a mess of equipment near a downtown parking garage that swallowed up a full lane of traffic as well as a sidewalk.

“I am so happy this topic has been brought up,” West said. “If you go to a walkable city like New York, you’re never gonna have a sidewalk that’s closed off for weeks at a time without scaffolding to walk under.”

We expanded Dallas Hates Pedestrians to highlight bad urban design and rather egregious code violations, but we always came back to piss-poor usage of the public right of way. Sometimes it was even the city’s own workers, who, Council was told yesterday, would not be subject to the new fines or fees. Can’t be charging yourself, I suppose.

In August of 2018, the city allowed inspectors to begin issuing fines of $500 per violation per day. Since then, the 11 ticketers have issued 553, mostly for working without a permit, failure to comply with restrictions, or not having a permit onsite. Prior to that, contractors operated relatively unchecked. Staff wants the violation fee to jump to $700 per day and, if approved, anticipates an increase in revenue of $45,000 in 2021. And if the contractor operates without a permit, they’ll be fined and retroactively charged double the square footage fee for however many days they illegally worked in the public right of way.

Staff tossed around some ideas, like writing off some of the fees if the contractor provided scaffolding for the sidewalk. Council member Lee Kleinman, who is also the transportation committee chair, suggested going even further: charging market rents for usage of the right of way.

“You almost have to look at our fee structure,” he said. “Is it cheaper than just rental? Your example of a 100-foot lane, 10 feet wide being closed for a year because some developer is using it just for storage, we might as well at least, if they’re going to rent it from us, we might as well charge that.”

City staff will now begin briefing the developers and contractors. They plan to return with an ordinance by October 1.

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