A small city tries to fund sidewalk improvements

Missoula, Montana—a city of roughly 70,000 people— for decades had a policy similar to many cities of allowing property owners to decide if they wanted a sidewalk, and pay for it themselves. This created city streets that resembled “broken teeth,” where properties with sidewalks were next door to properties without sidewalks. As more residents began calling for a better network of sidewalks, and after the city passed a “complete streets” resolution, asking property owners to foot the entire bill became less tenable, especially in today’s economy. City leaders are now considering a process that would shift the costs from individual property owners to city general revenues, and all taxpayers.

The plan calls for the property owner to fund roughly 30 percent of the costs and the tax levy to cover the remaining 70 percent, with a cap on the amount any property owner pays. This has become a particular hot issue politically in Missoula, where residents on the outskirts feel they have less need for sidewalks. However, city leaders point out that they will still enjoy the benefits of sidewalks in the center of the city, and there are indirect benefits to all residents, wherever they live.

The question of who pays for pedestrian infrastructure is common across the country.