Mar 14, 2022 - News

Push to have Minneapolis shovel residents' sidewalks gains support

Illustration of a person shoveling snow, which reveals a dollar bill.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

The push for a municipal shoveling program is personal for Minneapolis City Council Member Robin Wonsley Worlobah.

  • As constituent complaints about uncleared walkways filled her inbox this January, her own sister slipped on an icy North Minneapolis block while walking her dog and broke her leg.

Driving the news: As winter winds down, an effort to create a city-run shoveling program is picking up.

  • Several new council members — Wonsley Worlobah, Aisha Chugtai and Jason Chavez — have pledged to make the issue a priority in the upcoming budget debate.

The big problem: As anyone who's shuffled down an icy block or trekked through a stretch of sidewalk a neighbor failed to clear can tell you, shoveling is inconsistent at best and can vary widely by neighborhood and block.

How it works now: Property owners are responsible for clearing snow and ice from their sidewalks within 24 hours. If they don't get it done, the city may do it for a fee.

  • The city fields thousands of complaints — and issues thousands of citations — a year.

The proposed fix: Wonsley Worlobah and other supporters want to shift more of the burden for clearing sidewalks from property owners to the Department of Public Works.

  • Under that scenario, Minneapolis would send out workers when enough snow falls, similar to how Minnesota Department of Transportations dispatches plows to streets.

Yes, but: Clearing all 1,910 miles of sidewalks in the city — or even a portion of those walkways — is estimated to cost between $4.5 million to $20 million a year, on top of start-up costs.

Plus: A 2018 report by Minneapolis raises questions about whether city-led clearing would be faster than most homeowners doing it themselves.

What they're saying: Supporters argue the cost is worth it because the move would improve accessibility, safety and overall quality of life for residents, especially the elderly and people with disabilities.

  • "Even if one property owner does not clear their sidewalk, that can render an entire city block impassable for many people, especially people with disabilities [and] people who have mobility impairments," said Ashwat Narayanan, executive director of the pedestrian advocacy group Our Streets Minneapolis.

Between the lines: It's not clear how the city would pay for a full-scale program long term.

  • Public Works Committee Chair Andrew Johnson, who has pushed for better enforcement in the past, recently told Racket a property tax increase could be needed if that route prevails.

Of note: A number of other cities, including Duluth and some Twin Cities suburbs, have some sort of municipal shoveling operation.

  • But none have as much terrain to cover as Minneapolis would.

What's next: Wonsley Worlobah told Axios she and other supporters will be pushing, as part of the 2023 budget process, for $6 million to start a program to clear about 300 miles of sidewalk deemed high priority for pedestrians.

  • We have an opportunity to actually bring a necessary service for thousands of Minneapolis residents," she said. "So let's do that."

In a statement, Mayor Jacob Frey said he wants to use the budget to "identify potential opportunities to do even more" on snow clearing.

  • He did not take a specific position on a municipal program.
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