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'Unsustainable, unfulfilled and unfunded': City of Duluth may stop taking requests to clear snowy sidewalks

A city plow removes snow from Fourth Avenue West in Duluth. Forum News Service file photo

DULUTH — If a municipal plow pushes snow onto the freshly shoveled sidewalk of your Duluth home, it's the city's responsibility clear it away. At least that's what current city code says.

However, an ordinance heading to the Duluth City Council for consideration Oct. 8 could kill that provision, which Jim Filby Williams, Duluth's director of public administration, described as simply unmanageable.

"It is utterly impossible to accomplish this charge," he said. "In any major snowfall, a major portion of our 400-mile sidewalk network is reburied, sometimes multiple times."

Filby Williams estimated that the city would need to multiply its sidewalk-clearing capacity by about 75 to fulfill its duties, if it were held to the letter of the current city code.

Mayor Emily Larson pointed to the snow-removal obligation now on the books in Duluth as a clear anomaly.

"In our research, we have found no other cities in the U.S. who hold this promise — likely because it is unsustainable, unfulfilled and unfunded," she said.

Larson contends it's time to bring city code in line with reflect reality.

In practice, the city of Duluth already has given up its efforts to adhere to its sidewalk-clearing duties under the code.

Up until 2014, the city routinely responded to requests for sidewalks to be cleared, often in a piecemeal fashion, driven largely by constituent complaints made to Duluth city councilors. Filby Williams referred to that previous call volume as "overwhelming." He also said this squeaky-wheel response led to a haphazard snow-removal effort, with many resources dedicated to sidewalks with low-volume traffic located deep within residential neighborhoods.

But starting in 2015, city administration asked city councilors to cease making special snow-removal requests on behalf of constituents, instead enabling city staff to focus on maintaining safe routes to schools, mass transportation corridors and other key sidewalks with heavy pedestrian traffic.

Filby Williams said councilors heeded that request and have been "unwavering" in their support of the new policy.

At a recent agenda session, he told the council of an renewed push to improve performance this winter as the city code is amended.

"What we'd like to do with this next step is to formally remove the requirement and simultaneously ramp up significantly our sidewalk snow-removal effort for those priority sidewalks," he said.

That will mean purchasing some additional equipment and redeploying parks maintenance staff following snowfalls. Those increased resources should allow the city to roughly double the pace at which it clears snow from priority walkways, by Filby Williams' estimation.

In the past, it has typically taken four to five days for city crews to clear all the priority sidewalks. But Filby Williams expects to step that up to a couple days this year through the city's new initiative.

Peter Passi

Peter Passi covers Duluth city government and community issues. A graduate of Carleton College, he has worked as a reporter for more than 30 years and joined the Duluth News Tribune newsroom in 2000.

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