Snowbound sidewalks vex pedestrian advocates

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March 17, 2014
By: Dylan Thomas
Using Bobcat loaders with snowblower attachments, city crews are finding faster ways to clear snow from corners.
Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
Minneapolis aims for quicker snow removal with two pilot projects

As he prepared to move on from the job in February, Minneapolis’ former bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, Shaun Murphy, was asked about the top priorities for his successor.

On pedestrian issues, Murphy said, the answer was clear: snow removal.

“Pedestrian activity barely drops off in the winter,” he said. “There are just as many pedestrians out there. They need a lot of help.”

Just 24 hours after Murphy gave that assessment, a winter storm began that would eventually dump more than 10 inches of fresh powder on Minneapolis. For some of those serving on the city’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee, it underlined a point they’ve been making for years: The city and its residents must do a better job of clearing snow from sidewalks, corners and transit stops.

Under city ordinance, sidewalk snow removal is largely the responsibility of property owners. Sidewalks outside of single-family homes and duplexes must be shoveled down to the pavement within 24 hours of a snowfall. Commercial property and apartment owners have just four daytime hours to get the job done.

Three city sidewalk inspectors search out violations, but the vast majority of reports come from residents. More than 5,100 warning letters were mailed to property owners for un-shoveled sidewalk this winter as of March 3. Most complaints are resolved within four to six days, the city reports, but it can take up to three weeks for the process to play out.

That’s not good enough, said Don Ostrum, chair of the Pedestrian Advisory Committee, who noted snow-covered sidewalks are particularly challenging for people with disabilities, parents pushing strollers and the elderly. It wasn’t uncommon this winter to see pedestrians climbing over snow piles at transit stops and street corners, two places where Ostrum said it’s often unclear who’s responsible for snow removal.

Compare that to the city’s response in a snow emergency, when streets are supposed to be cleared for cars within three days.

As Ostrum put it: “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Snowy sidewalks

Two ongoing pilot projects are testing approaches that could speed-up snow removal by turning some of the work over to city contractors.

Since the winter of 2011–2012, in parts of Southwest and Northeast Minneapolis, a city contractor has completed sidewalk shoveling work orders, a job that in other parts of the city is done by a public works crew. Those work orders are issued only after a complaint is filed, an initial inspection confirms non-compliance, a warning letter is sent to the property owner and a follow-up inspection — which can take five days for residential properties — finds sidewalks still covered in snow and ice.

Dan Bauer, who supervises sidewalk inspections for Public Works, said the contractor has just three days to complete the shoveling work order, but city crews sometimes have other priorities, especially when multiple snow event occur one after another.

When it gets to that final step, property owners are billed for the work and could also face a $102 citation. In most cases, the sidewalk is cleared before the clock runs out.

Meg Tuthill represented Ward 10 on the City Council when the pilot project launched in the Wedge neighborhood, where she lives. That was three years ago, during a balmy winter with scant snow.

This winter and last, though, Tuthill said she noticed a slight improvement in the number of neighborhood sidewalks cleared and the response time to complaints. It could be faster still, she said, and problem areas remain.

“Where we have the biggest problems I think are oftentimes where we have the most absentee landlords,” Tuthill said. 

In the street

When city plows clear streets, they leave long, linear piles of snow known as windrows, and where two windrows meet at a corner is often a pile of heavy, compacted snow — not on the sidewalk, where it’s a property owner’s responsibility, but in the street. In a second pilot project, the city is testing a contractor against its own crews to see who can clear those corners fastest and most efficiently.

Mike Kennedy, director of transportation and maintenance repair for Public Works, said corner clearing is another job city crews do on an as-time-allows basis. Neither the contractor nor the city start on the job until after a three-day snow emergency expires.

Former Mayor R.T. Rybak’s final budget before leaving office included an additional $200,000 for clearing corners and bike lanes this winter. It was a boost for Public Works, but only one-fifth of the $1 million the department requested for the job, Kennedy said.

Still, the department managed to clear every one of the city’s nearly 16,000 corners twice this winter. A recent switch from large equipment to smaller Bobcat loaders outfitted with snow blower attachments has lowered the amount of time the job takes to under three weeks, said Denny Thoresen, a Public Works foreman.

When complaints about snowbound transit stops come in, Thoresen’s crew tackles those, too, but only when they have the time. As with street corners, the piles at transit stops are often windrows left by plows.

Kennedy said a city worker in a Bobcat can “take a bite” out of a windrow, but it’s not happening at transit stops on a regular basis.

“We recognize this as a responsibility of ours, but we’ve never gotten any true funding for it,” he said.

A seasonal problem

Both pilot projects are due for an evaluation at the end of this winter, and Kennedy said it’s likely the city will continue to outsource some of the sidewalk and corner-clearing work.

“We’re trying to do it as best we can within whatever resources we are given,” he said.

Even so, winters like this one leave some Minneapolis residents feeling trapped.

“Anecdotally, I don’t think there’s any real noticeable difference between the pilot project (areas) and the rest of the city,” said Scott Engel, a Pedestrian Advisory Committee member.

Engel, who has a degenerative eye disease and uses a cane to get around, buses across town from his home in the Standish to his job in CARAG, where he’s executive coordinator of the neighborhood organization. But the mile-long walk from his house to the Midtown YWCA was “not even passable” this winter, he said.

“In the winter, I find I’ve got this very limited area I go in,” Engel said.

Both Engel and Ostrum suggested the city take a cue from Rochester, N.Y., and manage all sidewalk snow removal. It’s proposal Kennedy said has come up several times in recent decades and would likely add millions to the city budget.

As February snows melted into March potholes, pedestrian advocates faced another problem: keeping the public’s attention on a serious, but seasonal, problem.

“This winter is hopefully ending,” Engel said. “Let’s learn from this, and then when it gets to be the next winter we can do better.” 

Scott Engel of the Pedestrian Advisory Committee. Photo by Dylan Thomas