There hasn't been a plowable snowstorm in the Twin Cities since last month, but many streets in St. Paul neighborhoods remain at least partly snow-packed, rutted and bumpy.
The situation raises an annual question: Why are so many of the city's roads in such bad shape so early in the season? And, most important, what can be done to improve winter driving conditions in the growing city?
A combination of factors causes St. Paul's rocky road problems. The city's Department of Public Works typically doesn't plow, salt or sand residential streets unless there is a snow emergency. The city also has thousands of residents who park on the streets — too many of whom don't move their vehicles during snow emergencies to facilitate curb-to-curb plowing.
And, as noted in a recent news story, the city doesn't ticket or tow the vast majority of cars that aren't moved when they should be. According to city officials, during last month's snow emergency, St. Paul issued 2,226 tickets. Yet only 373 cars were towed — about 16.8%. That's about the same rate as during the seven 2018 snow emergencies.
During the last 2019 snow emergency in Minneapolis, 5,317 tickets were issued and 1,247 vehicles were towed — a rate of 23%.
St. Paul's tow rate is relatively low, officials and tow truck operators say, because the city has far more cars parked on the streets than it has tow trucks to haul them.
The city contracts with private towing firms during snow emergencies, but those firms only dispatch a few trucks because of what they are paid by the city. They should be able to do more this season because the City Council recently raised the towing fee to $175 (up from $90 to $120 per tow). That increase, said one contractor, should make it easier to persuade subcontractors to pick up cars in St. Paul.
The city has more than 1,800 miles of streets to clear, and the main thoroughfares are done first. Drivers of up to 80 plows must follow their schedules and try to clear streets within about 24 hours whether cars are moved or not. That means many streets cannot be plowed from curb to curb.
"Our goal is to get the streets cleared — not ticket and tow more cars," St. Paul Public Works Director Kathy Lantry told an editorial writer. Lantry said towing fees can be a major hardship for many lower-income residents — often the same people who have the hardest times getting their cars off the roads. By the time administrative fees and taxes are added, the final bill can exceed $300 under the new fee schedule.
Lantry said the city is doing more road maintenance between emergencies and has used graders to try to dig up some of the packed snow and ice. She added that her department is focused on improving communication with residents, especially those who might be new to the community. An online color-coded map, for example, allows people to type in their vehicle's location to find out where they can park during a snow emergency.
Many St. Paul residents are understandably frustrated. Property taxes keep rising in the city, and residents expect officials to deliver basic city services such as snowplowing and ongoing street maintenance.
Blaming car owners who don't move their vehicles isn't solving the problem. Lantry, Mayor Melvin Carter and the City Council need a better winter weather strategy. It's worth exploring the use of public and private lots for temporary parking during snow emergencies for those who don't have access to garages. The new emphasis on maintenance between storms is welcome and should be bolstered.
And, yes, the city's strategy should include more ticketing and towing to make it clear to vehicle owners that they need to follow the rules.