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Walkability and health survey results show support for tax increase

Tony Casey • Jul 19, 2016 at 6:05 PM

With the results of a recent Walkability & Health survey now in hand, you could say Johnson City residents now face the choice of which trail to take.

They can get behind an increase in taxes to pay for the trail and sidewalk projects they want to see continue. Or they can follow the path of waiting for the city to roll out these projects over several years as the budget allows, through phases.

But whatever the route taken, the common destination sought by Johnson City residents — as reported in the survey’s results — includes more sidewalks, trails and available health and fitness-related amenities. And residents want them to be scenic, too.

The city’s Comprehensive Plan for 2020 makes clear some of the municipality’s goals.

“It is the policy of the city to promote improved fitness, safety, and quality of life by providing a sidewalk network that allows access to all parts of the city,” one section reads, followed by the goals of adding bikeways or greenways. “To create a network of bikeways and greenways capable of supporting multiple users for transportation and recreation opportunities.”

One of the city’s top officials, who would oversee these projects, shared his thoughts on the survey’s results.

“There’s a lot of desire by the public for walkability, even to the extent that they’re willing to pay for it,” said Johnson City Public Works Director Phil Pindzola, whose department, with the leadership of East Tennessee State University intern Cheyenne Peavler, helped distribute the link to the survey in June.

Pindzola was surprised at the number of respondents, and also the apparent willingness to support a tax increase to support projects that would build more sidewalks and trails.

“All the information I saw in the survey is that they wouldn’t mind seeing an accelerated program,” Pindzola said.

“Are we going to do that? No, we have to live within our means.”

If it’s the will of the people to accelerate these projects, Pindzola recommends making it well known to the City Commission and to see to it that extra money is put into future budgets. Pindzola said the current commission is great about listening to the people.

He does worry whether survey respondents are exactly representative of the people of Johnson City.

The approximate number of respondents was at about 800: approximately 55 percent were female; 64 percent were between the ages of 35 and 64; nearly 95 percent were white; nearly 69 percent earned between $20,000 and $75,000 annually; and about 75 percent hold either a bachelor’s or graduate degree.

Respondents also reported at a level of nearly 80 percent that they are “sufficiently” active, so it’s possible those who answered might not be the population needing the benefits of trails and sidewalks as much as those who didn’t respond.

In the recommendations section of the report, the survey was summed up with the apparent will of residents.

“Survey results indicate that the majority of city residents would be willing to support a tax increase to fund additional trail and sidewalk systems, suggesting that residents hold a positive attitude towards this type of infrastructure and that they are enthusiastic about its implementation,” it reads.

About 55 percent of respondents supported a tax increase for a new trail or sidewalks, with almost 30 percent more considering supporting a tax increase. About 17 percent said they definitely wouldn’t support a tax increase for those new amenities.

The follow-up report shows poor health-related numbers for the state of Tennessee: the Volunteer State is near the worst states in regards to obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, physical inactivity, cardiovascular health, cancer deaths, heart attacks, stroke, heart disease, high cholesterol and poor mental and physical health days.

Health care savings are imminent, according to the report, should these projects be done.

The study cites other studies in which it’s said that every $1 of investment for trails and physical activity is nearly tripled in direct medical cost savings. These benefits reportedly will help certain populations more than others.

“Implementation of trails may be especially beneficial for high-risk groups such as women and people of lower socioeconomic status, as these groups are more likely to increase their walking habits after beginning to use walking trails,” the report reads. 

Dan Reese, a trail consultant who worked with Pindzola on the Tweetsie Trail, applauds the effects it will have on these sub-populations. He said any trip to the Tweetsie Trail shows that people of all backgrounds and economic statuses are using it for what it’s intended.

Reese pointed at the 25-mile State of Franklin Loop trail—which will connect the Tweetsie Trail and downtown Johnson City area with the Watauga River — as an all-encompassing amenity connecting nearly all of Johnson City’s neighborhoods.

Part of the big area of focus is North Johnson City, around Boones Creek, Carroll Creek Road and the Winged Deer Park area, where there currently aren’t connections. This came about, Reese said, as the municipality developed over the past few decades when the focus was on making things easier on automobile drivers who live in suburbs.

Now, knowing the public health benefits of physical activity, Johnson City and others across the country are trying to retroactively put in non-vehicle modes of transportation, like trails and sidewalks.

“The development pattern was auto-centric,” Reese said. “Automobiles were used as fast transit. Now we’re looking at alternative and healthier transportation models, which is relatively recent.”

Reese acknowledges that while a tax increase, as supported by the opinions of the respondents, would expedite these alternative and healthier transportation models, they would most likely come through phases.

Email Tony Casey at tcasey@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.

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