City needs to step up on snow removal

If you’re going to live in Minneapolis, buy a 4-wheel drive SUV with high clearance and a larder full of provisions.

Minneapolis deserves its rotten reputation for snow removal. Every year when white stuff falls out of the sky and clogs the streets, some city official appears in the news saying, “Whoa! We didn’t expect that!”

Really? Because residents did. Minneapolis + Winter = Snow. Note to City Hall: Write that down.

The erosion of the city’s snow removal budget and the reduction of the city’s efforts following snowfalls have created serious safety hazards and economic consequences — and the excuses used by city leadership in the media and on the city website are worn thin and worn out.

Blaming parked cars is like my son complaining that he can’t vacuum the living room because the sofa is in it. Go over, under, around or through, but vacuum the bloody room.

In a Dec. 18 Fox 9 interview, Mayor Rybak named parked cars as the big snow removal problem, while the TV station showed shot after shot of unplowed streets with no or few parked cars on them. Rybak isn’t totally wrong — in parts of the city, streets are densely parked, and that’s certainly a plowing challenge. But enough hand wringing, already. Let’s solve that one. If some streets are blocked with parked cars, plow out the streets that aren’t. On the streets with a few parked cars, plow around them. Open commercial parking lots as safe havens. Research the best practices of cities where plowing is done well and copy them. Minneapolis is surely not the only city with cars parked on the streets.

Blaming the budget is disingenuous. Economic times are tough. The budget is tight. But allocating dollars is a conscious choice, and the city’s snow removal choices treat safe roads as an option rather than a responsibility. We can make another choice. Cutting the snow removal budget a million or so dollars in the first part of the decade, reducing it another $250,000 in 2009, and slashing another $1.15 million out of it in 2010 has nothing to do with the problem — it must be the residents who don’t have garages.

Blaming the size of the job is just silly. The city website whines about the 1,040 miles of streets and 3,700 miles of alleys there are to plow, as if no other town on the planet has roadways and as if Minneapolis is unusually enormous. “To get some perspective, consider that each street must be plowed in two directions and many streets have multiple lanes,” the website offers defensively. Gasp! No wonder our plowing is terrible — we have streets!

Blaming Mother Nature sidesteps responsibility. Snow falls, rivers rise, plains flood. Dikes rupture, bridges collapse. Competent and wise emergency planning is a reasonable and essential expectation of city, state and national leadership.

When it comes to snow removal, the city makes demands on motorists, residents and business owners, while exempting itself. Drivers who can’t get their cars out of drifts are ticketed and pay hefty towing fines. Residents and businesses that don’t clear their sidewalks are scolded on the city website, fined and sometimes assessed additional fees. The city tolerates from residents none of the excuses that it uses for its own lack of performance.

The city’s low priority on snow removal is an economic mistake. Three times before Christmas, friends of mine from the suburbs said, “We can’t shop in the city — it’s too hard to drive there.” They were right. We spent our money in Edina, where we could find the streets and didn’t have to climb snow bank mountains to enter shops. Cross France Avenue for a lesson in how snow can be cleared competently. Why would businesses want to move here when the city isn’t committed to making roads passable for customers and employees? And why would new residents move here when they know they’ll be trapped? A friend recently bought a home close to, but not inside, city boundaries. Why? “Because Minneapolis doesn’t clear its streets.”

It’s also a public safety mistake. Last year, the deeply entrenched ice ruts caused by the lack of snow removal actually steered cars in our neighborhood into other parked vehicles, like Hot Wheels cars on a plastic track. This year, unplowed snow forced residents to take life-threatening risks, day after day, to get to work, to the hospital and home. Of course, accidents resulted. Of course, people were hurt. Of course, property was damaged. After the big storm, West 25th Street was not plowed for days. When my husband called the city, he was told that in a week and a half — on Dec. 21 — we might get shoveled out. But on Dec. 21, fresh snow fell, so plows were sent elsewhere. Maybe you folks in Linden Hills and Kenwood get better service, but here in Whittier, we are apparently supposed to shovel ourselves out with our crack spoons.

Snow emergencies aren’t mildly inconvenient snow days. They are public emergencies that put lives and livelihoods at stake. Minneapolis must devote innovative thinking, creative problem-solving and appropriate levels of money, equipment and personnel to the task. Cuts have gone too far. The job hasn’t been done well in too many years. It’s time to reverse that devastating trend.

“Proper and timely response to winter weather conditions is paramount to the safety of the traveling public, the economic viability of the city, and neighborhood livability,” reads the Minneapolis website on Snow and Ice Control. Glad to know the city agrees.

Pamela Hill Nettleton lives in Whittier, and might consider selling her SUV, but only if she moves to the burbs.