In snow removal policies, some people are more important than others

There are times I’ve been convinced that after about three days of losing the benefits of a civilized life — electrical power, running water, fully stocked grocery stores — Americans would rebel and take to the streets.

But that theory is discredited by our passivity after two weeks of snowstorms and the need for sherpas to cross the mountain of snow between the unshoveled sidewalks and the bus waiting in the street.

Everyone has a breaking point, though, and West Duluth business owner Al Kosters is reaching his, the Duluth News Tribune suggests.

The snow is piled so high along Grand Avenue — Duluth has gotten about 26 inches of snow — that people can no longer see the storefronts, it says.

Kosters, who owns an antique shop, hammered signs into the snow piles this week.

“Support your locally owned businesses because the city doesn’t,” says one sign.

“It’s becoming a big issue,” Kosters tells the paper. “A number of businesses have been contacting the street department and have gotten no response.”

“I mean they did take their time with snow removal in downtown Duluth, but I take the bus, so I go right through Lincoln Park and downtown Duluth and I’ve seen that it’s been weeks now since they’ve removed the snow there,” Kosters said. “We haven’t had any snow removal (in West Duluth) this entire winter.”

Removing snow seems like a no-brainer for local politicians’ career paths, but as cities struggle more with removing it, there’s little evidence that the disinterest in making such a mundane task a priority is a threat.

“I was told we were on the rotation but due to cold weather that came through they had to cancel snow removal,” said West Duluth Business Club president Susan Coen. “Then they canceled that following week because it snowed and then they canceled again this week because it snowed.”

“The issue, as I understand it, is that crews have a very hard time keeping up with tier one areas when snow is this persistent,” Phil Jents, city of Duluth communication and policy officer, wrote in an email to the News Tribune. “For instance, they make a dent on tier one routes, and then more snow comes, so they have to hit reset. So it can be incredibly challenging to get into the other tiers.”

Though for the most part, Jents said, it’s the property owner’s responsibility to remove snow on sidewalks whether it’s put there by a snowplow or not.

“That said, we’re committed to reviewing our snow removal responses to better reflect a fair and equitable response to snow events moving forward,” he said.

This is the challenge cities face. They determine that some areas of the city — mostly based on traffic — are more important than others so with every snowstorm, some neighborhoods go to the front of the line, others get stiffed.

The problem is that’s not the way people are taxed for the services that, at least for some, aren’t delivered.

  • In snow removal policies, some people are more important than others

    Well, yeah…

    • jon

      It’s one of the times I’m glad I live on a metro transit bus route just down the road from the school.
      My road is one of the more important ones…
      Between 5am and 6pm weekdays my street is cleared of snow. (outside of those hours metro transit stop running that bus and the schools are long since closed.)

  • Rob

    IMHO, all of Minnesota’s major cities deserve an F for snow management. The Duluth debacle is just the latest, most egregious example.

    • I respectfully disagree.

      I live in Minneapolis (just north of MSP) and am quite pleased with the swiftness of snow removal considering the amount of snow we have gotten in the last few weeks.

      • Jeffrey

        Mpls does a better job of snow removal than St Paul. I am always amazed at how better the streets are after I cross the Lake Street bridge.

        • We also need to remember who is responsible for plowing the different roadways: City streets – the city plows those, county roads – yep, the county plows those, and MNDOT plows the highways/freeways.

          • Kassie

            Not necessarily. I live on a county road, but it is plowed by the city.

          • YMMV?

          • Jack Ungerleider

            I think inside the city limits the city takes care of county roads and some roads designated as state highways.

      • Rob

        How are sidewalks and street approaches? Is plowing done such that all lanes of all roads stay open? Can people with physical limitations or people in wheelchairs readily and safely access sidewalks and street crossings? If you pull up to a curb, can curbside passengers get out, or do you need to be further out on the road for passengers to get out?

        • Joseph

          That really falls on the jurisdiction. Usually if that is done, its cities (vs. counties/MnDOT), however cities are usually focused on plowing for cars, so any city sidewalk plowing is typically ranked lowest priority. Most cities require citizens to keep sidewalks and curb-cut-ramps shoveled clear, although enforcement is typically non-existent or again, very low priority.

          • Rob

            I’m aware. My point is that the city in question needs to see to it that all public access areas are cleaned fully and effectively. But life is cheap, so people with physical limitations and those in wheelchairs are just SOL between late October and late April.

          • Check out White Bear Ave where people are standing in A TRAVEL LANE of the street because of the horrendous conditions at the bus stops

          • lusophone

            And to take it up a notch, imagine standing at a so-called bus stop along the side of MN-62, formerly MN-110 at Lexington in Mendota Heights in the middle of winter with snow piled up behind you and cars flying by you at 55 plus mph.

            Here’s street view from Google Maps:

          • Yikes!

  • MrE85

    Personally, I was quote pleased and surprised with the good road conditions when I drove home from the airport last night. Spend some time in Washington DC, or Evansville, IN if you want to see how poorly a city can respond to snow.

    • jon

      Or go drive the illinois tollway and you’ll see how crappy we are at cleaning off our roads…

      The grass is always greener on the other side of the 25ft wall of snow.

      • MrE85

        I have a deep and somewhat irrational hatred of toll roads. Changed my route to Indianapolis in part to avoid them. Like I said, somewhat irrational.

        • jon

          A friend of mine who grew up here moved to chicago… he felt the same way and largely refused to drive on toll road…

          I went down to visit him at one point, and we were going to go get some pizza, he didn’t know any where in the north burbs where he was living, so I said let’s go to the south side (burbs) where I grew up… I jumped on the tristate with my ipass and we zipped down there, it was outside of rush hour (probably a weekend).

          He got an ipass with in a week.

          When we lived down there we had a suburb mayor who was fairly corrupt… the city contracted with a trucking company to plow the roads, and the trucking company was owned by the mayor… since plowing the roads was one of the things a opponent to him in an election would point to he cleared the roads really well (some times corruption works…. he also pumped water from a contaminated well into the city water supply to save a few bucks, so some time corruption doesn’t work.) but those plows would get you to the tristate from our house and the tristate was always cleared and treated…
          So long as you wanted to go to some place close to the toll roads you could get there easy.

        • kevins

          The Kansas Turnpike was a heck-of a-nice road last time I paid to be on it!

  • Mike

    There was an amusing article in the Star Trib yesterday about how cars in the wealthy southwest corner of the city were far less likely to be towed than anywhere else. It was framed as a question of less density, which may be true to a point. But I didn’t see even a mention of the possibility that wealthier residents get more considerate treatment from the city.

    Just another example of our favorite cultural myth: social class doesn’t exist in America.

    • Erik Petersen

      As a matter of structure, yeah, city and towing companies exploit >= middle class and poor street parkers …. I bet they’d be perfectly fine exploiting car owners in SW neighborhoods if those cars weren’t in garages. Structural, there, as an externality of class….

      • Mike

        It’s not really clear, however, that the lower rate of towing is proportionate to the lower number of cars parked on the street in SW Minneapolis. I suspect that would be difficult to determine with any precision.

        One unintentionally funny aspect of the article is that it quotes city council member Palmisano, who represents much of the area, defending the lower towing rates. She was cited by the city for failing to clear her own sidewalks of snow.

        • Kassie

          I can’t find anything about that online. Don’t you mean Lisa Bender?

          • Mike

            My mistake – Lisa Bender. Palmisano can recommend lax towing with impunity. 🙂

      • Rob

        Or, given that it’s the luxury of garage space to keep your car out of the elements as well as away from towing zones, maybe it’s an internality of class…

  • Mike Worcester

    Another reality is that municipalities are limited by the size of their work force and equipment array. Even with overlapping shifts, it’s tough to keep all the roadways (both rural and urban) cleared in an expedient manner.

    How many times have we heard people say “why aren’t the plows out yet?” There are staffing and equipment reasons as to why.

    In cities, there were days when those snow piles were just left there. I’ve seen my fair share of images — and so I bet have many News Cut readers — of those days. We don’t do that any more but removal of those obstacles requires people and machines…and time. Not always are all three of those in available.

    • John

      ha. way to post at the same time as me. Good points all around.

  • John

    They have to prioritize somehow – there are only so many plows and so many hours that you can get your staff to drive them in a week (and then we can complain about how much our city is spending on overtime). And given that it’s government, I’m sure they have to have their system clearly documented.

    It sounds like the system works okay when it snows every couple weeks, but as expected, a rigid system doesn’t work when unusual circumstances happen.

    I think this is an excellent opportunity for those who set the priorities to sit down and look at the system and figure out how to make it more equitable. It makes perfect sense to me that the high traffic roads get priority during (or just after) it snows. It might make better sense to prioritize snowbank removal based on some weighted combination of how much is there and how busy those streets are.

    • The problem is that with every snowstorm, the prioritized people are prioritized AGAIN. So over the course of a month, they might get plowed out four times where the people of tier 2, for example, don’t get plowed out at all. So I guess the question is what makes one person so much important than someone else who also needs to get out of their street and get to work?

      And why not, if you’re going to provide services this way, tax the more important people and neighborhoods more than the less important ones?

      • John

        Like I said, this is a good time to look at how it’s currently done and make some changes to fix that issue.

        I’m not a big fan of the “tax some more than others” plan. That may already be functionally happening, since my guess is the businesses on high volume roads have higher income, and thus higher overall tax burden.

        • There’s no local income tax.

          • John

            I was thinking property and the local sales tax (which I’m 99% sure Duluth has) were the two main sources of more income from those sites. But i’ll admit, it’s a stretch.

          • Mike Worcester

            Duluth does have a local sales tax but I cannot quite find if it’s directed toward anything specific.

          • John

            It probably was when it was first passed.

            This is all pointless navel gazing anyways, isn’t it? I mean, essentially nobody benefits from taxes at exactly the amount they pay in. Some come out ahead, MN comes out behind (see the discussion the other day about who is a net donor to the fed vs a net recipient). If I were to demand out exactly what I pay in, I don’t even know how that looks . . . I’ve never used the fire department (directly), but I’m happy to contribute. Ditto the police (again, directly).

            On the other hand, I’ve had the city arborist out to my house to inspect my old trees and make recommendations – I’m sure nobody living in any of the hundreds of apartment units in town have any use for that guy.

            So, we can whine (and we will), but the bottom line is, there’s a lot of snow removal to do, and some people get to the front of the line more often than others. The solution (I think) is to look at how that system is defined and adjust it so the people at the back don’t get repeatedly screwed when there’s a foot of snow over two weeks.

          • jon

            But don’t they already pay more in property taxes?

            Commercial locations with higher foot/vehicle traffic (and thus more revenues) should have their property valued at a higher price, and thus pay more in property tax…

            For that matter more revenue directly suggests more sales tax payments…

  • lusophone

    This post isn’t really talking about snow plowing the roads. It’s about snow removal from the sides of the streets and the sidewalks. We really need to place a higher priority on pedestrians and public transit users. I feel so lucky that I am physically able to walk to my kid’s school to pick him up in these current conditions. There are so many people who can’t even think of going out when the sidewalks and intersections are blocked with piles of snow as the are now.

    • Jerry

      As I was driving to work today down a street with no boulevards, I saw that someone had cleared out a spot for their car by shovelling it back into the sidewalk.

  • boB from WA

    “Though for the most part, Jents (the communication and policy officer) ,said, it’s the property owner’s responsibility to remove snow on sidewalks whether it’s put there by a snowplow or not.” Hmmm…nice way to deflect responsibility back on those who pay the taxes to remove the snow. My question for Mr Jents would be this, “Where in the heck am I to put the snow that I’m supposed to remove?”

    • Brian Simon

      Back into the street?

      As a corner lot homeowner (mpls), I’m obliged to keep the corner crosswalk clear. It’s unclear to me whether that includes removing the plow wakr from the street too, or not. Because they aren’t even plowing to the curb any more. For the sake of sidewalk users, I’m trying to keep a trough clear, but am running out of space for the snow. And am frankly under equipped to deal with the quantities of snow thay plowback onto cleared crosswalks.

      • lusophone

        I know that when it starts to really pile up, Minneapolis sends out bobcats to clear sidewalk corners at the crosswalks. I think we’re probably close to that happening now. It will depend on the temps I’m sure.

  • QuietBlue

    The articles I’ve read about Montreal’s snow removal process make it sound very impressive. For one thing, they have a ton of vehicles of various sizes and capabilities devoted to it. Also, they don’t allow any street parking during heavy snowfalls during the removal, but they do provide free offsite parking for those who need it. Finally, the use of the word “removal” instead of “plowing” is intentional here — they don’t just push it to the side, they actually blow it into trucks that haul it away to dump it.

      • Brian Simon

        I was thinking of montreal too; of course it’s because of an earlier newscut post!

        I doubt anyone here is willing to pay the taxes that would support that service.

      • jon

        I saw a treo of machines clearing sidewalks in st. anthony(?)

        First a small plow, then a snow blower, then a snow sweeper to get it to bare concrete/asphalt…

        I mean it’s no canadian model… but it was fun to see them getting it down to bare ground….

        • Jack

          You too can have that service if you are willing to pay for it. We brand ourselves as a walkable city. We also aren’t that large so snow removal is manageable.

          That said (if school is closed) the side streets aren’t plowed very quickly. Also, whoever plowed up by the shopping left a huge pile in the driving lane by the coffee shop last week – safety issue with all traffic in one lane. Come on, we can do better.

          • jon

            I’m content, my suburb runs a snow blower over the sidewalks after the snow falls… doesn’t get down to bare pavement, but for triple the cost it doesn’t seem like a strict necessity…

      • Jeff

        An aside, reading the comments from 5 years ago and was wondering of the current commentators who is in the 5 year club? I see Kassie, Mr. E85, Noodleman, JimRF, probably more…

        • From my Disqus account:

          Joined Apr 3, 2013

          Although I’ve been on MPR discussion forums for MUCH longer…in different guises.

          • KTFoley


          • Jack

            I posted as guest until that was no longer an option.

            Not as prolific as others given my day job keeps me away (I’m on vacation today) and usually only the day’s schedule is posted by the time I read the blog before work.

        • It’s been interesing watching commenters come… be prolific for a few months or maybe a year… and then disappear without a trace.

          • Kellpa07

            Yeah, we get busy

        • John

          I see my comment about not being willing to pay for it here on that article.

          I probably made the same comment here in some form on this article.

        • Jeff

          Interesting, I’ve been on Disqus since October, 2013. The 5 year club! I stumbled on the top NewsCut commentors list

          • Erik Petersen

            I obviously need to work harder at this.

          • Jeff

            I suggest

          • Jeff


          • Jeff


          • Jeff


          • Jack

            Love the images you post.

          • Kassie

            I see this and think that the humans in my house need to get a life. Both of us are on this list.

          • Actually, being on the list is affirmation that you have one.

          • Kassie

            Including myself, I’ve met six of the eleven people on this list in reali life, so I must have some sort of a life.

          • John

            I have mixed feelings about making this list.

          • Jerry

            I think it is sad that there are three times as many John/Jons on the list as there are people that I know are women (it’s not always clear from the screen name). There are also twice as many Moffits than women, which is just weird.

    • Rob

      Yes – Canada knows how to do exceptionalism!

  • JamieHX


    • JamieHX

      How does one make a paragraph break here in NewsCutland?

      • John

        I use the enter key on my keyboard.

        • JamieHX

          That doesn’t work for me.

          • Jack

            Did you try alt enter?

          • JamieHX

            Thanks. I will try that.

  • Guest

    Remind me how much a gallon of distilled water costs in the grocery store. We literally have mountains of the stuff outside our doors 🙂