Think sidewalks are an icy, snowy mess after a storm? They're a disaster for people using wheelchairs and walkers.
People who live or work in downtown St. Paul and need wheelchairs, walkers or other help to get about are especially unhappy. They're meeting with officials late Monday afternoon to voice their concerns.
Whenever there's snow, Allison Locey worries she's going to face some serious obstacles if she tries to get about the streets of downtown St. Paul in her wheelchair. She knows sidewalks, curb cuts and crosswalks may not be clear enough for her wheelchair to operate — even days after a storm.
Locey lives in Minneapolis and likes to take light rail to work in St. Paul. But the elevator at the central St. Paul light rail station has been out of commission for weeks. Locey can't readily get to the skyway, and she hasn't been able to trust she can wheel her way out of the station and across a street on the way to her job at the Department of Employment and Economic Development.
"The one crossing that I have to use is typically blocked," she said. "When I call and ask about the corner, the Metropolitan Council cannot locate Fourth and Minnesota on a map. And then they say it's not their responsibility."
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Locey and other people who really need clear paths to get anywhere are meeting at the St. Paul Public Library downtown with officials from the city, Metro Transit and other organizations.
"I hope it brings accountability. I hope the city, the Metropolitan Council and Metro Transit step up their game," said Locey.
Metro Transit spokesperson Howie Padilla says his organization wants to see what it can do to help.
"It's not feasible to stand out there 24 hours and knock down that ridge every time it [a snowplow] comes across," he said. "But if there are ideas on how to attack things and address issues, you've got to listen because no one person is as smart as everybody is together."
One of Locey's coworkers at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, Ava McKnight, fractured her knee when she fell on an icy sidewalk last month. She's been using a walker while her knee heals. And with a walker, she said it's quite a struggle after a snowstorm to get from her usual parking ramp to her job. Sometimes she's had to park in an expensive skyway-connected garage near her office.
"I've got photographs to prove that there was no way I would have been able to get down the street with a walker and fractured leg and safely get to work because they don't clear the sidewalks, the train tracks, the curb cuts," she said.
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Locey, McKnight and other people with mobility challenges complain they've encountered buck-passing bureaucracy and indifference when they complain about snow and ice.
Kianna Lehman works at the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living in downtown St. Paul. She said she's been stuck on the light rail tracks with her wheelchair at times. She said there's no one party stepping up to make sure people like her can navigate downtown streets after a snowfall.
"As far as I know, business owners are responsible to take care of their property," she said. "The sidewalk is their property to keep clear and everything else. But there are properties that are owned by the city and state. It's their responsibility. Every corner is different, whose responsibility it is."
St. Paul officials say they sympathize with those struggling to make their way across snowy and icy streets. Mayor Melvin Carter says the heavy snowfall this year has made it especially challenging to keep walkways clear. But he said the city is trying to coordinate efforts get snow removed quickly and keep sidewalks and crosswalks passable.
"We're working now with city partners and also our partners at the county, the Met Council and a couple of nonprofits, working to ensure that's the case," Carter said. "We've targeted certain spaces to make sure that we are proactively doing snow removal, as well as identifying strategies to work even more directly with the property owners.
Most Minnesota communities require property owners to keep sidewalks adjacent to their property safe for public travel.
That includes clearing snow and ice. But some cities use municipal workers to clear sidewalks. Bloomington clears all 250 miles of sidewalks in the city.
Others clear street corners. And some municipalities have developed volunteer programs that assist the elderly and other people with shoveling sidewalks.
St. Paul might consider leaning harder on property owners to remove snow. The city requires that snow and ice be removed from sidewalks within 24 hours.
But typically the city only goes after scofflaws after a complaint. Between November 2018 and early this month, the city had received about 3,000 complaints from all neighborhoods.
When someone complains about snow and ice on a sidewalk, a code enforcement officer will check the suspect property and, if warranted, send the property owner a letter asking that the sidewalk be cleared.
"The property owner then has essentially three days to take care of it," said Suzanne Donovan, a spokesperson for St. Paul's Department of Safety and Inspections.
If the owner does not, the city can have the snow and ice removed and bill the property owner for the work. But meanwhile, the sidewalk isn't clear for folks who have to get around in wheelchairs or face other mobility challenges.