See more of the story

Lots of snow means lots of sidewalks to shovel.

And too often, lots of sidewalks are left unshoveled, or kinda-sorta-shoveled.

This has led some in Minneapolis this week to amp up calls for the city to take over the job of clearing neighborhood sidewalks. In both Minneapolis and St. Paul, the task is currently the responsibility of property owners, with fines or fees levied against those who fail to comply.

In favor vs. skeptical

Supporters of the change say the current system isn't working, especially for those who struggle with mobility or are elderly; not only might they not be able to shovel, they also are the most vulnerable to being unable to navigate snow-filled or icy sidewalks.

"Bottom line, we feel like the ability to walk and use sidewalks should not be seasonal," said José Antonio Zayas Cabán, advocacy director for Our Streets Minneapolis, which is pushing for the change, along with several members of the Minneapolis City Council. "In a city like Minneapolis with so much snowfall, it's an unfair interruption."

Those saying not-so-fast include Mayor Jacob Frey.

"Conceptually, everybody's for it," Frey said Friday. "To have the convenience of additional city service is something I believe is broadly supported — in a vacuum. The issue is cost and practicability, and those are not issues that should be dismissed."

What's the cost?

In addition to start-up costs of at least $4.5 million to buy about 120 sidewalk plows, the annual cost for the city to clear sidewalks would approach either $6 million or $20 million.

Those two figures — based on two different approaches — are based on a 2018 study by the city, so the cost today would likely be higher.

In addition to buying new equipment, as many as 200 seasonal workers would have to be hired to operate the plows and coordinate the work.

The cheaper plan would translate to a roughly 1.7 % increase in residential property taxes, while the more expensive one would raise property taxes about 5.7%.

The more expensive option, which is the one that supporters are generally pushing for, would raise taxes on a home valued at $319,000 by $95, according to the 2018 estimates. Another way to look at it — the way Zayas Cabán and Our Streets pitch it — is that would cost every resident about $47 a year.

How would it work?

The cheaper plan would only clear sidewalks if a snow emergency is declared. That's usually only about four or five times a year.

Advocates aren't fans of that because there are, on average, about 18 to 20 lesser snow events that can still pile up on sidewalks, and experience from some cities that have similar programs suggests that some residents tend to get out of the habit of shoveling, figuring they'll put it off and let the city clear it after the next big snow.

The more expensive plan would clear snow after all but light dustings.


Practical questions remain, including:

  • How hard would it be to actually hire 200 or so workers willing to forego, say, a New Year's party to clear sidewalks all night, knowing they won't have work when the winter ends?
  • What would be the standard for a sidewalk being "clear"? (Ever notice how a snowblower sometimes leaves behind packed snow, but a shovel blade and some muscle can scrape right down to the concrete?)
  • What about ice that forms between snowfalls from the inevitable freeze-thaw cycles that typify the second half of winter? Would city crews chip, sand and salt as needed?
  • Who would clear corners and other walkways blocked after the street plows come through?
  • Would this system really be enough? The city estimates it would take 12 to 24 hours, which is within the 24 hours now required of residents. But a lot of trampling can occur in 24 hours.

Stay tuned

Zayas Cabán said he plans to rally public support and among the City Council for a program to be funded in the 2024 budget.

Frey said he's open to hearing more details, but it's not atop his agenda.

"It's not the first thing I'm gonna be tackling. It's not the 10th thing I'm gonna be tackling."