Will you pay to plow your own alley?

One councilmember questions whether alleys are more private than public -- raising the possibility residents could pay for their own alley maintenance

Everyone knows Minneapolis is a city of lakes, but residents also live in a city of alleys. However, are alleys a public space, providing right of way for utility lines, garbage trucks and the occasional block party -- or are they private spaces, little more than driveway extensions to get to your garage?

City Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward) considers it more than an academic question. He asks how the city can pay for alley maintenance, such as snow plowing, when it can't spend enough on street maintenance that could cost taxpayers big-time in coming years.

"We are $14 million behind in just maintaining our roads," Niziolek said. If alleys are not a public space, "we have to ask ourselves, do we need to put more money into roads and … less money into alleys?"

The city of Minneapolis has 3,700 individual alleys stretching more than 400 miles -- more alleys than most suburbs have streets, said Mike Kennedy, a Department of Public Works supervisor. He called alleys "a hidden part of our infrastructure that people don't really think of."

Property taxpayers spend $1 million annually on alleys, Kennedy said -- $700,000 on snow plowing and $200,000 to $300,000 each year on alley patching, he said. (The city also spends a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year on alley sweeping -- but that is covered through sewer bill fees, not through property taxes, he said.)

With dwindling budgets, alleys have received less resources because of the low speed and volume of traffic on them.

"We are down to where they are not getting a lot of care," he said.

St. Paul does not plow its alleys.

Property owners contract for their own alley plowing. Dropping alley plowing is one area mentioned to save Minneapolis money.

City Councilmember Sandy Colvin-Roy (12th Ward) said any changes in alley maintenance would come in the 2004-2005 budget at the earliest, but it is a conversation the city needs to have.

"A city ordinance prevents you from using the alley unless you own a property on that alley, unless you are heading to your own property -- so there is some logic to the idea that the alley is an extra service to those properties," she said.

"We are investigating several possibilities for new revenue to maintain our streets and … and taking a look at alleys and particularly alley snow plowing and whether it is completely a public item or private is something that will come up in that discussion."

An alley walk The ordinance banning people from driving down alleys they do not live on is probably little known, and on some blocks, it is little followed.

Bob Iverson lives on the 5000 block of Russell Avenue South, and during rush hour, he said the alley between Queen and Russell avenues acts as a thoroughfare. "I'll see cars zinging through here because traffic is backed up on [West] 50th," he said.

Walk down a typical alley and you will see a line of garbage carts and recycling bins, a tangle of utility wires overhead, a hodgepodge of one- and two-car garages in various states of disrepair and an occasional basketball hoop. Tall wooden fences block views into some backyards and hide barking dogs. Many yards open to the alley, showing gardens, swing sets, picnic areas and barbeque grills.

Talk to people in the alleys, and they react unfavorably to any city plans to jettison its traditional alley maintenance role, notably plowing.

John Prokop of Armatage, a former member of the city's Capital Long-range Improvement Committee (CLIC) said snowplowing was a vital city service.

"I'm in the middle of the block," he said, taking a break from fixing his van's brakes on his driveway slab. "Having [alley] snow plowing is important. You don't have to hassle with snow emergencies."

Adam Gordon, who lives on the 5100 block of Queen, called possible city cutbacks, "a poor idea, since we have already designed how we live off the alley."

Iverson said the property owners don't own the alley. "I'm sure they are looking for ways to streamline the budget," he said, watering his back lawn. "To hand that back to the residents would create a lot of problems."

Jon Mool of Fulton said if the city changes its alley policy, he hoped Public Works would continue provide the service, adding the cost to the water and trash bill.

One Armatage resident, who asked her name not be used, said she supported privatizing the plowing because she believed the private sector could do it cheaper than the public sector.

The city still has approximately 90 unpaved alleys and 100 private alleys, Kennedy said. Between 10 and 20 percent of city blocks don't have alleys at all.

Nancy Gossard lives on the 4500 block of Colfax Avenue South, a no-alley block. She likes walking her dog, Frieda, down alleys, she said, but she loves not having one herself because of the alley traffic problems she had at her old home.

She did not support cutting alley maintenance from city services, however, because some people could not afford it, she said.

The St. Paul model The typical question raised by people interviewed in alleys: How would it work if the city stopped plowing?

Kennedy said alleys provide a port in a snow emergency storm and there are good arguments for maintaining the service.

"When we do the snowplowing, one of the first things we do in a snow emergency is we start by plowing open the alleys," he said. "The idea is, because we are going to be asking people to move their cars off the street, we want to get access to the alleys."

Gary Erichson, a St. Paul street maintenance engineer, said his city, similar to Minneapolis, does summer alley maintenance. It sweeps them in the spring, seal coats them once every eight years and patches them as needed.

It does not plow them in the winter, however.

"I am sure Minneapolis doesn't shovel the sidewalks either," he said. "The citizens shovel the sidewalk in front of their house. They are responsible for mowing the boulevard in front of their house. In St. Paul, they are also responsible for any winter maintenance of alleys."

Generally, neighbors each chip in a few bucks and have somebody with a pickup and a plow clear their alleys, Erichson said.

It is not as expensive as some may think. Melissa Eberhart, a Macalester Groveland resident, said she and her husband pay $10 to $20 a winter for alley plowing.

"Our entire block goes in," she said, and it hires "somebody's relative.

"The same lady organizes it every year. She comes around and collects."

More carriage houses? Chuck Ballentine, Minneapolis director of planning, said the alleys in the older parts of town date back to the horse and buggy days. They gave access to a carriage house, usually without going through a front yard.

The pattern of alley development continued. "It pulls some less-than-desirable activities away from the street face," he said.

Niziolek said he wanted to extend the alley discussion beyond the funding questions to include crime and housing issues. He suggested that if alleys were part of the transportation infrastructure, public not private, the city could encourage more housing along alleys to increase the tax base.

"Now we get into a more controversial conversation," he said. "What should be happening along an alley? Should we be having housing or not? If not, should we be funding it fully because it is more of a private use than a public use?"