Seattle, Bellevue and other cities are struggling to find ways to pay for sidewalks — which can cost about $2 million per mile.

Jim Portillo walks in the roadway, just a few feet from passing cars, because there are no sidewalks along his Greenwood street. Portillo, 31, is blind.

Sweeping the area ahead left to right with a white cane, he avoids the roadway’s gravel shoulder — if it exists at all — because ditches or parked cars frequently interrupt the path.

He shrugs and says he’s been dealing with the danger for five years.

“There’s not a lot of room between me and traffic,” he says. “Every now and then you wonder about some drivers.”

Forty percent of Seattle streets lack full sidewalks on both sides of the road — totaling 650 miles, the city estimates — but installing them is a staggering expense of about $2 million per mile. It’s not just the cost of the pavement: When a curb is built, it changes the flow of surface water, triggering legal requirements for drainage systems, which in turn can involve buying adjacent property. Many cities can build them only as part of a major street-paving project.

But residents are demanding sidewalks, and cities and counties are looking for ways to pay for them. Olympia turned to utility bills. Bellevue taps its capital budget. And King County spends about $1 million a year out of its roads fund. Snohomish County has committed $2 million annually to sidewalks and roads.

For the first time, Seattle has devoted money just for building new sidewalks — enough to install less than a mile a year citywide. Over the next nine years, taxpayers will foot the bill through a levy approved last year.

Next month, the city’s transportation department is holding open houses to ask residents to rank proposed sidewalks, traffic signals and other suggestions it received this summer by the hundreds.

The department will use those comments to determine which big projects to tackle out of a $1.5 million annual pot. The city’s 13 district councils get to split an additional $1.2 million a year for small projects, which frustrates neighborhood activists who want a say in how all the money gets spent.

The City Council, which has adopted pedestrian safety as its highest priority this year, is looking for ways to speed up sidewalk construction.

“It seems insurmountable, but at least we could start chipping away at it,” Council President Nick Licata said.

In addition to being a visual cue to drivers to slow down, sidewalks give residents a chance to interact with each other, says Nicole La Chasse, a real-estate agent who lives in North Beach.

“When you have a sidewalk,” she says, “you feel you can walk up to your neighbor’s door.”

Dividing line

North 85th Street is the dividing line — when it comes to sidewalks, at least — between Seattle’s haves and have-nots. It’s also the dividing line for Greenwood, a neighborhood northwest of Green Lake that is Ground Zero in the fight over sidewalk spending.

Until the mid-1950s, much of the land north of this line belonged to King County, which didn’t require developers to build sidewalks.

Seattle always required sidewalks, except for small projects. That meant only pockets of Seattle — parts of Southwest Seattle and Beacon Hill, for example — lacked sidewalks. Developers who built sidewalks to comply with the city’s land-use code passed the cost on to homebuyers.

“I have a sidewalk because I live south of 85th,” explains Kate Martin, a Greenwood community leader. “North of 85th was sort of like Hooverville.”

By the mid-1950s, people living north of the line had voted to become part of Seattle and pay its taxes — in exchange, some say, for promises from Seattle officials at the time to construct sidewalks and drainage ditches in the future.

Over the decades, the city unsuccessfully tried to organize the area’s residents to share the cost of building sidewalks.

By 1988, residents north of 85th still lacked basic amenities, especially in the area in which Portillo lives. Roughly 70 percent of the blocks in northeast Greenwood lacked storm drainage, gutters, curbs and sidewalks. Open ditches were and still are the norm, contributing to overflow into the street during heavy rain.

The community asked the city to make the residential street that Portillo now frequently walks — Fremont Avenue North from North 85th Street to North 92nd Street — a priority for street improvements.

“Walking in the street is dangerous to pedestrians and motorists,” a city official wrote in a 1988 report. “In many parts of Greenwood, pedestrians must walk in the street because the shoulder or planting strip is either used to park cars, or is covered with overgrown vegetation and/or mudholes. Residents are concerned that this is extremely dangerous for children and senior citizens.”

A few weeks ago, city staff estimated it would cost Seattle up to $4.5 billion to add sidewalks for all Seattle streets — and this doesn’t include the cost of putting in drainage systems.

The Seattle Department of Transportation plans to spend about $1 million annually on sidewalk installation, out of the Bridging the Gap levy approved by voters last year.

“The need is so great,” said Wayne Wentz, the department’s director of traffic management. “In one sense we can’t be too wrong in picking one place over another.”

Still, the transportation department created a ranking system this year to help it sort through requests from neighborhoods (see sidebar at right).

For example, its staff wants to focus sidewalk spending on routes to elementary and middle schools — but Greenwood mothers such as Martin point out that high-school students are at greater risk for being hit by cars because they’re more likely to be out walking by themselves and when it’s dark.

The city also is considering putting the onus on developers — and, in turn, prospective homebuyers — to build sidewalks in front of redeveloped lots when they tear down single-family houses and replace them. That change could especially benefit parts of Lake City, Bitter Lake and Northgate, city officials say.

Other cities are taking a more aggressive tack.

Earlier this year Bellevue’s City Council allocated $3 million to build sidewalks. The city estimates it needs $26 million to complete more than 30 critical sidewalk projects. As in Seattle, many of those sidewalk-less streets were once part of King County.

Three years ago, Olympia residents voted to raise their utility rates by 50 percent — about $60 a year — to pay for sidewalks. A little more than half of Olympia’s major streets lack them.

Like Seattle, Olympia has hired a consultant to conduct an inventory so it knows exactly how many streets do not have sidewalks.

Neighbors organized

Michael McGinn decided he wasn’t going to wait any longer for sidewalks. The Greenwood resident wanted his son to realize the health benefits of walking and bicycling.

Several years ago McGinn organized neighbors on his block and cobbled together enough money to install asphalt sidewalks near his house on North 87th Street. The sidewalks look cheap, he admits, but they’re better than nothing.

Martin would like to see the city take the responsibility for sidewalk construction away from the transportation department and delegate it to a nonprofit sidewalk authority.

“We need a lot of sidewalks to be built, and we don’t have the pieces in place to make it happen,” Martin says. The transportation department “is not going to be able to make it happen, and in the contracting world there’s only a handful of contractors qualified to do it and they’re really busy.”

Wentz, the city’s chief sidewalk planner, concedes as much. “Our ability to deliver stand-alone sidewalks is too expensive,” he says. “We have nine years of funding. We don’t think those dollars are enough to get a sidewalk on every street.”

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com