It’s often the stuff of wintertime office banter: How many co-workers took a tumble en route to work on an icy or snow-packed walkway?
In Minneapolis, slipping, falling or being unable to use a snowy sidewalk is an all-too-common occurrence. And because Minneapolis has so many sidewalks and a growing population of people who need to use them, keeping them clear is essential.
Under current city rules, property owners are responsible for shoveling their walks and corners within 24 hours of a snowfall. But compliance in many areas is spotty at best. It’s a welcome sign that the city is getting tougher on compliance and is at least considering what it would take to offer winter sidewalk maintenance.
In a 2018 fall report to the City Council, public works staff recommended against city-run sidewalk plowing for this 2018-19 snow season, saying it would be too expensive and challenging to change the system so quickly. Yet some council members rightly pressed for further study.
“ … We still have consistent problems every year,” Council Member Cam Gordon said during a council discussion. “If we really want a walkable city, we have to be able to do about as much … for the sidewalks as we do for the bike paths and probably for the streets.”
In response to the ongoing concerns, the Minneapolis public works department is rightly taking a more proactive approach this year. Notices were sent to all property owners last month to remind them about their responsibility to take care of walks, corners and curb cuts. The notices also alerted property owners that the city is dispatching more inspectors to identify problems rather than waiting until neighbors complain about blocked walks.
As they identify problems, they’ll collect information about why the walks weren’t shoveled to help them develop a list of resources for those who cannot clear their sidewalks. That list could include those who are disabled, mentally ill or elderly or who spend parts of the winter out of state.
And if those efforts are unsuccessful, property owners will be billed or have charges added to their tax notes to cover the city’s costs of removal. Last winter, the city assessed $123,651 in sidewalk snow-removal fees. But that amount doesn’t include hundreds of cases of noncompliance that were not reported to or inspected by public works.
Many other metro-area municipalities include sidewalk and trail shoveling as a city service. But none come close to the number of miles of sidewalks in Minneapolis. Bloomington, for example, shovels its 250 miles of walks within four days of a 2-to-5-inch snowfall. In the east metro, Roseville clears its 75 miles of trails, sidewalks and footpaths following significant snow events.
In comparison, Minneapolis has nearly 2,000 miles of sidewalks. Public works officials estimate that it could cost $4 million to $6 million to clear just some of the city’s sidewalks — and only after heavy snowfalls. And the bill for doing them all every time the flakes fly could run as high as $20 million per season.
And even if public works did more to keep the walks clear, property owners still might have to pitch in to clean them down to the pavement. Currently in Minneapolis, property owners are liable if someone is injured because of snow and ice on their walks. Should the city take over the task, it would have to be determined where that liability would be.
That’s one of many questions that need answers before Minneapolis could take on citywide sidewalk snow removal. For now, it’s positive that the city is collecting the data required to make a decision that balances the need for passable walkways with the cost and taxpayers’ ability to pay for it.