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Nashville public works department ignored sidewalk directive from Metro Council

The Tennessean (Nashville) logo The Tennessean (Nashville) 10/18/2018 Joey Garrison
Metro Nashville rebuilt portions of this sidewalk at West End Middle School after it was deemed non-compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act Monday, October 15, 2018. © Alan Poizner / For The Tennessean Metro Nashville rebuilt portions of this sidewalk at West End Middle School after it was deemed non-compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act Monday, October 15, 2018.

The Metro Public Works Department disregarded a Metro Council directive by paying to construct nearly two dozen sidewalks at Nashville public schools instead of using the money for other projects.

Brentwood-based Collier Engineering, which did the sidewalk engineering, design and inspection, failed to ensure the sidewalks at five of the 22 schools complied with federal Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines. The city had to rebuild portions of them.   

Collier Engineering has been awarded $37.5 million in contracts in the past five years by the public works department for sidewalks and paving, according to a review of records by The Tennessean. 

The public works department could not say how much money the firm received for engineering and inspecting the school sidewalk projects, which were built during the past 15 months. The projects involve sidewalks on school property or leading to the campuses. 

Collier Engineering is obligated to pay for ADA compliant repairs, public works department spokeswoman Cortnye Stone said.

The sidewalks have been repaired at three of the schools: West End Middle School, Harpeth Valley Elementary School and J.E. Moss Elementary School.

Fixes still need to be done at J.F.K. and Madison middle schools. 

Council shifted $3M in sidewalks-to-schools funds last year to bikeways

Stone said the $1.24 million to construct the 22 school sidewalks — a figure that doesn't include any payments to Collier — came from $30 million in capital funds the Metro Council approved for sidewalks in the spring of 2017.  

But one council member says they shouldn't have been built because the council voted to divert $3 million earmarked for new sidewalks at schools to new bikeways instead.

Public works officials went ahead with the school sidewalks anyway — even though Metro has other sidewalk projects prioritized in Metro’s WalknBike plan, which was updated last year for the first time in a decade. 

Councilwoman Angie Henderson, an outspoken advocate for more sidewalks, said there's a "strategic benefit" to building sidewalks on school property because it doesn't require expensive land acquisition.

But, she said, the public works department's decision to disregard the council's directive and build the 22 school sidewalks instead of bikeways concerned her.

"I think sidewalks to schools are wonderful," Henderson said. "But we've tried very, very hard to try to move to a very transparent and objective scoring process through the WalkNBike strategic plan.

"This particular group of sidewalks seems to have had less transparency."

Public Works: We used sidewalk funds to build sidewalks

At the time, the council decided to shift funds away from the sidewalks to schools program because the city lacked a list of schools that needed work.

"It was never in the schools' plan, and there's no current list of where the schools will build the sidewalks," At-large Councilman John Cooper, the council's then-Budget and Finance Committee chairman, said prior to amending the mayor's capital plan. "And so it's just a question of putting the priorities where they should be."

Other sidewalk advocates say they are not concerned with the decision to pursue the school-based projects.

Nora Kern, executive director of the nonprofit Walk Bike Nashville, said she believes building sidewalks near schools is consistent with the goals of the WalknBike plan.

"I don't think that's a diversion at all from the plan since that was a key priority," she said.

a large tree in a park: Metro Nashville rebuilt portions of this sidewalk at West End Middle School after it had been deemed non-compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act Monday, October 15, 2018. © Alan Poizner / For The Tennessean Metro Nashville rebuilt portions of this sidewalk at West End Middle School after it had been deemed non-compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act Monday, October 15, 2018.

Stone, of the public works department, said the projects were approved internally by public works staff in collaboration with Metro Nashville Pubic Schools based on where they identified needs.

She rejected the notion that the public works department lacked authorization for the projects, saying school sidewalks are just like public sidewalks. She said the sidewalks help school-age children "make safe connections from city streets to their school entrances."

"Since helping children safely access their school is a priority for Public Works, we used $1.24 million dollars from the sidewalks fund and built sidewalks that allow school children to safely access their school," Stone said, in an email response to questions. "We think these are incredibly valuable projects, and worked in coordination with many district council members during the course of design and construction."

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How the ADA mistakes happened

The public works department is led by Mark Sturtevant, who then-Mayor Megan Barry named as full-time director last December after serving as the interim director since 2016. 

Metro in 2015 awarded a five-year, $20 million contract to Collier Engineering after a competitive bidding process to provide professional engineering and technical consulting services for Metro's paving program. 

Stone said Collier was picked for the school projects because the firm was already working on projects for MNPS and "had the capacity to complete these sidewalk projects in a timely way, in contrast to our other sidewalk contractor who was working at or near capacity."

The sidewalks were built by Roy T. Goodwin Contractors. A second engineering firm Metro typical uses for sidewalks is Civic Engineering. 

The ADA issues arose because of two separate standards — one for sidewalks on Metro school property compared with standards for sidewalks on public property. Stone said neither the public works department nor the school system knew there were different standards.

Mistakes involved building the sidewalks at schools with slopes, making the walkways too steep without handrails.

The issues were eventually identified by the Metro General Services Department, which is tasked with overseeing ADA inspections.

Chad Collier, president of Collier Engineering, downplayed the mistakes, saying it represented only about 2,000 square feet out of 82,000 square feet that encompassed the 22 sidewalks. He said the firm was instructed to build the sidewalks quickly and therefore did no on-site surveying for the sidewalks and instead relied on GIS maps.

"Under the direction of the previous administration, we were going as expeditiously as we could to get these sidewalks on the ground," Collier said. "For whatever reason, they pushed us to go quickly to get those projects done."

"In doing that, there was an ADA regulation that we weren't as aware of as we should have been," he said, adding that various Metro departments weren't aware either.

He called it "fairly normal" to do small repairs when sidewalks are non-compliant.

Reach Joey Garrison at 615-259-8236, jgarrison@tennessean.com and on Twitter @joeygarriosn.

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