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Is Minneapolis fed up enough with snowy sidewalks to pay for a citywide path-plowing program?

With complaints about snow and ice already mounting with more weeks of winter ahead, some city council members are renewing a push for a municipal sidewalk-clearing program. But are residents sick enough of winter to shoulder the price tag that could top $20 million?

An icy sidewalk in North Minneapolis.
An icy sidewalk in North Minneapolis.
MinnPost photo by Kyle Stokes

There was little chance Shakita Kpetay could’ve seen the slippery object that caused her fall.

Two layers of snow completely covered the sidewalk in her neighborhood in North Minneapolis. The bottom layer was a packed-down marble of snow and ice. The top layer was a fresh coating of powder. In between the two was an apartment management sign, bent over and hidden in the wintry mixture.

While walking her dog in December 2021, Kpetay slipped on the sign under the snow. A neighbor found Kpetay on the ground, in pain, struggling to hold the pit bull’s leash; he phoned 911. Two more neighbors prayed over Kpetay as she waited for the ambulance.

Her ankle and leg were broken. She was on crutches for weeks, and in physical therapy for six months.

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In Minneapolis, city ordinance requires property owners to clear sidewalks on their property within 24 hours of a snowfall, and city data show the vast majority do. But Kpetay — who’s the sister of city council member Robin Wonsley — argued her fall points to a need for city officials to take a more active role.

“We cannot just depend on individuals, good neighbors or kind neighbors to be the ones who are responsible for making sure that the city streets are cleared,” Kpetay said. “The city has to take some accountability for that.”

Why the city council might revisit sidewalk plowing this winter

The city of Minneapolis has 1,900 miles of sidewalks, and the question of whether city officials should assume responsibility for clearing them isn’t new. Accessibility advocates, including Our Streets Minneapolis, and city leaders have weighed creating a municipal sidewalk-plowing program for years.

So far, a hefty price tag and concerns about logistics have been deal-breakers. An April 2018 study found a program to clear all of the city’s sidewalks after each half-inch of snowfall would cost $20 million. With present-day property values, city budget officials estimated that generating that much revenue would require hiking property taxes by 4.5% an increase of roughly $129 per year for the median Minneapolis homeowner. 

“Even if you can pay for it,” Mayor Jacob Frey said in an interview this week, “can you get the personnel, the number of employees, to be able to step up and do it well? I’m not going to be someone who’s going to over-promise and then under-deliver.”

But next week, some city council members will try to refresh the debate. City council members Wonsley and Aisha Chughtai have called for a new feasibility study for a city-run sidewalk-clearing program that Minneapolis could roll out in stages over three years. They’ve said legislation ordering this updated study is scheduled to appear before a council committee next week, on Feb. 16.

An abnormally-snowy start to winter in the Twin Cities might draw more interest to their idea.

Already this winter, Minneapolis residents have called the city’s 311 hotline with more than 7,800 complaints about snow and ice on sidewalks, according to a MinnPost analysis of city data through Feb. 4.

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At this pace, Minneapolis could easily set a new record for the number of 311 complaints about winter street and sidewalk conditions.

There may be a silver lining to this year-over-year rise in complaints: Council member Andrew Johnson theorizes residents are more likely to call 311 now because they’re more likely to believe calling the hotline will lead to a city response.

But broadly, the early-season surge in 311 calls reflects what has been the fifth-snowiest start to winter on record in the Twin Cities, with more than 55 inches of snow already. Not since the winter of 2010-11 has so much snow fallen in the metro, so early in the winter. (An average winter sees about 46 inches of snowfall.)

On Dec. 6, before much of that snow fell, Wonsley —  who represents Ward 2, which includes the U of M campus — proposed tacking her sidewalk-clearing study onto the city’s annual budget. Her proposal failed, with opponents citing procedural concerns with a last-minute amendment.

Weeks later, “we had this abnormal snowstorm,” said Wonsley, “that has just created lots of issues across the city, especially when it comes to our sidewalks becoming impassable — especially if you’re a senior, if you're disabled, or even just a regular person … [or] if you rely on transit.”

And what if this year’s “abnormal” winter becomes more typical? Climate change studies have shown Minnesota could see fewer days of snow cover in coming decades — but also could see more winter precipitation.

“We’re seeing freezing rain that we didn’t used to; have freeze-thaw cycles we didn’t used to have,” said Isla Tanaka, a winter planner for the Canadian city of Edmonton, during a December webinar.

Because of climate change, “it’s only going to get more complicated,” said Austin Holik, a member of the Minneapolis’ Pedestrian Advisory Committee, which is also pushing for a refreshed sidewalk-clearing study. “My hope is that because it’s only going to get more complicated that we can find a way to work together and make it better.”

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What would a city-run sidewalk plowing program look like in Minneapolis?

In Minneapolis, city staff both proactively monitor sidewalks and react to 311 complaints about un-plowed paths. Most complaints prompt the property owner to clear their sidewalk, but about one out of every five complaints results in a contractor clearing the path at the property owner’s expense. The city also has a program to clear snow from street corners.

But Wonsley and Chughtai envision a greatly-expanded role for the city.

Their legislation would order Minneapolis officials to draw up cost estimates for a sidewalk-clearing program that would begin in 2024 with the 596 miles of sidewalks along the Pedestrian Priority Network — which includes downtown and major thoroughfares such as Lowry, University, Hennepin and Lyndale avenues.

The council members call for a “phased-in” approach that, by 2027, would make the city responsible for clearing every sidewalk in Minneapolis.

“Whatever financial cost would be well worth the benefit if residents don’t have to injure themselves if they’re trying to go to their grocery store across the street, or break their leg while walking their dogs,” argued Wonsley — who, in December 2021, had to leave work to retrieve Kpetay’s dog so her sister could board an ambulance to the hospital.

“Residents will appreciate that trade-off,” she added, “if we’re delivering a quality public service.”

How do other cities handle snow on sidewalks?

Comprehensive data on how many North American cities take on snow-clearing responsibilities is hard to find. However, Edmonton planner Tanaka said many urban centers on the northern prairie are like Minneapolis (and St. Paul, for that matter): Homeowners are responsible for clearing public walkways adjacent to their properties.

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There are prominent exceptions: Montreal; Winnipeg; Burlington, Vt.; and Rochester, N.Y., all take on at least some responsibility for clearing pedestrian paths in winter.

But each of these cities’ programs raise questions that would affect how a Minneapolis-run sidewalk plowing program would work.

For example, when does the city call out the sidewalk plows? Rochester, N.Y., only calls out plows after more than four inches of snow falls. Below that threshold, property owners are on their own, leading to occasional confusion about who’s responsible, leading some residents to simply wait for the city to clear their walks after the next big storm.

As Minneapolis’ 2018 study also notes, sometimes it’s not precipitation, but a thaw, that can obstruct a path: When snow melts, pools on a sidewalk and then freezes, it’s a property owner’s responsibility to clear that, too.

How thoroughly would city snowplows remove snow and ice from a path? In Winnipeg, municipal sidewalk and bike path plows only clear down to the layer of compacted snow on the bottom — not to pavement. Tanaka said this has been a source of frustration to some pedestrians and cyclists.

After one recent storm, some pedestrians and cyclists took snow clearing into their own hands, drawing a threat from city officials to fine anyone clearing city sidewalks or bike paths on their own.

And who would actually plow the streets? In 2018, officials estimated that Minneapolis would need to either hire or contract with operators for 120 plows for a citywide program.

Could Minneapolis pull off a program of its own?

Council member Johnson has been down this road before.

Johnson campaigned on making pedestrian paths more walkable in the winter, pushed for the 2018 sidewalk-clearing study and supports the new push to refresh that study.

However, Johnson now believes a citywide program would cost far more than $20 million, as the city estimated in 2018. Johnson said the city ought to explore other steps first: more outreach to property owners, beefing-up programs to help those who are unable to clear their own walks, stepping up enforcement against repeat violators and exploring a limited program to clear the Pedestrian Priority Network.

A citywide program “could be worth it if we could show that we’ve exhausted other reasonable steps to achieve the same outcomes, and we haven’t done that yet,” Johnson said.

If the concern is improving Minneapolis’ climate resiliency, Frey said the city has more pressing concerns, like replacing century-old stormwater pipes that are more prone to backing up and flooding — a task that is likely to cost “hundreds of millions” in the coming years.

“Is [snow-clearing] something, conceptually, that I’m for? Yes,” Frey said. “But I’m the mayor, the buck stops with me, and I have to take in the full set of facts when making this decision.”

Minneapolis’ 2018 study does contemplate a less-expensive, but less-comprehensive option: Instead of plowing after every snowfall, Minneapolis officials could only send out sidewalk crews whenever the city declares a snow emergency. The cost of clearing all sidewalks citywide under this scenario could be closer to $6 million annually — roughly $28 per year for the median homeowner.

Johnson dismisses this option, saying the juice wouldn’t be worth the squeeze: “You still have these massive logistical, operational challenges — but for what? To spare folks from shoveling once a season?” (And homeowners wouldn’t be completely spared from shoveling because they’d still be responsible for paths on their property and around garbage bins.)

Wonsley said an updated study might offer new answers.

She said the city may be able to lean on existing services to help defray some of the cost — and perhaps make a citywide program more cost-effective and achievable. Certain neighborhood associations already help with sidewalk clearing; Wonsley said schools or community groups may be able to get involved, as well.

“We fully believe a municipal or citywide program is absolutely doable,” she said, “and we can do it through a mixed-delivery model.”

Like Johnson, Wonsley, too, wouldn’t be content with shoveling only high-traffic paths.

“We can do this over a period of time; no one is saying we have to roll this out overnight,” the council member said. “But the goal at the end of the day for us is citywide.” 

“We’ve tried the model of individual responsibility,” Wonsley added. “We know there are some areas across the city where there is that really good samaritan neighbor who wakes up at 5 in the morning and shovels everyone’s sidewalk.

“But we also know for a lot of residents across the city, that is not their reality.”

The city council’s Public Works & Infrastructure Committee is scheduled to take up her proposal on Feb. 16.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misnamed the Minneapolis Pedestrian Advisory Committee and misspelled the second reference of Chughtai and cited the incorrect percentage of property tax hike necessary to pay for a new $20 million program. The story has been updated.