Minneapolis City Council eyeing next step toward funding sidewalk clearing

A person uses a snow blower
Aaron Fredrikson plows the sidewalk on 35th Street in Minneapolis on Jan. 4.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Updated: Feb. 16, 6 a.m.

Does Minneapolis need a big new taxpayer-funded initiative to take over a long-standing private task: clearing winter snow from sidewalks?

Minneapolis City Council members will discuss that question Thursday at a Public Works & Infrastructure Committee meeting. The proposal from two council members could go into effect as early as 2024 and include the entire 2,000-mile city sidewalk network by 2027.

It’s also getting a public airing Wednesday night, in an online forum sponsored by Our Streets Minneapolis, an alternative transportation nonprofit that promotes non-car travel in the city.

“There’s going to be community members, council members ... hopefully some people providing some expertise on the environmental impacts of snow accumulation and snow removal,” said José Antonio Zayas Cabán, advocacy director at Our Streets. 

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Our Streets is advocating for a citywide, publicly-funded sidewalk clearing program. 

Zayas Cabán said access for people who need or want to walk, and easy passage for wheelchair and transit users, is worth the effort. Curbing snow blowing and other power equipment use could aid the environment, he said.

A small tractor with snowplowing equipment heads down a sidewalk.
A snow removal vehicle drives down sidewalks along Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis as snow falls on Jan. 19.
Max Sparber | MPR News

The city has an ordinance requiring property owners to clear their sidewalks within 24 hours, but complaints about widespread neglect have grown common.

A 2018 study by the city estimated a citywide sidewalk program would cost $5 million to start and about $20 million a year, for continuous service through 18 to 20 snowfalls.

That’s not small change: The city’s general property tax levy that year was $332 million. A new sidewalk program would add about 6 percent to that levy and put yet more pressure on housing affordability in the city.

In an interview with MPR News, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said the cost would be a “very high number that would add substantially to the property tax burden of taxpayers in the city,” and he feared labor, fuel and other costs have added substantially to the city’s first estimate from five years ago. 

He said he would support a council examination of the idea, due to be discussed on Thursday, but that a massive sidewalk program would not be a top priority for him. He also said he had reservations about its practicality: about acquiring and maintaining a huge new fleet of equipment, finding enough on-call workers to do the job quickly and well, and whether turning the work over to the city would lead property owners to believe that they had no responsibility for sidewalks at all and neglect minor snowfalls, ice storms and other hazards. 

“If we were able to do all of that perfectly, of course, it's a great idea,” Frey said. “But doing this badly, having a rollout that’s totally busted — I don't think anybody wants that.” 

The city is already challenged with the infrastructure it is responsible for now, like filling potholes and plowing the streets.

Zayas Cabán said property owners now spend millions on snow removal. Having a citywide program might offer some larger economies and cut inefficient and high-emission engine use like snowblowers, as well as clear more sidewalks, he said,

“We’re talking about 30 percent of people in the city that cannot afford to own cars, 10 percent of people in the city who report to have a disability,” he said. “We’re talking about political will and values that will lead us into a place where these people aren't forced to feel marginalized and they have equal access to employment and other amenities.”