Snow takes toll on streets, budget

Record snowfalls this winter have buried cars, jammed roadways and covered the roofs and driveways of Minneapolis residents. The snow piles have also mucked up the city’s Public Works budget.

The city had budgeted $8.7 million for snow plowing in 2010, but Director of Public Works Steve Kottke said when all the bookkeeping is finished the city will have exceeded that budget by $3 million. The city plans to dip into its contingency fund to cover the overage.  

The obvious blame, city officials say, is that Minnesota experienced the snowiest December on record. Through Jan. 15, 52 inches of snow fell in Minneapolis, according to the National Weather Service, already past the average of 45 inches.  

But this winter has been extra expensive. Of the five major snowfalls, four came on weekends or holidays when drivers must be called in on overtime, said Mike Kennedy, the city’s street maintenance and repair director.

“I think certainly this December has been one of the worst starts to a winter in the 20 years I’ve been dealing with it,” said Kennedy, whose first year on the city’s snow response team came in 1991, the year of the legendary Halloween blizzard.  

Kennedy said the city typically calls three or four snow emergencies each year. Snow emergencies are usually called when snowfalls totals top 4 inches. This year the city has declared six snow emergencies, two of which came after the 17-inch storm on Dec. 11.   

Though snowplowing services will be able to draw on a fresh 2011 city budget, there is still work to be done in the continuing effort to clear snow remaining from the December storms.

Some major arteries through the city, as of mid-January, were confined to one lane of traffic in each direction because snow banks cover space usually used for parking. South Hennepin Avenue was cleared in early January, but South Lyndale Avenue was still down to one lane in mid-January.

Kennedy said the city is still determining how aggressive to be with the remaining snow. Clearing snow from those arterials means removing it from the street and hauling it to a vacant lot the city uses. The lot is meant to accommodate snow removal during an average winter. Having already exceeded average annual snow totals, the lot is “being taxed,” Kennedy said. He said the city is looking for other possible lots in order to continue removing snow.

“This is extremely expensive, slow and time consuming work,” he said. “When we talk about snow plowing, we measure that in hundreds of miles a day. When we talk about snow removal, we are talking about blocks per day.”

Many residents are upset about the condition of roadways a month after the storm. The Minneapolis Snow Emergency Facebook page is filled with hundreds of comments from residents that range from anger over parking on their streets and backed up traffic on Lyndale and Hennepin to sympathy and gratitude for the city and its efforts to deal with daunting snowfalls.

John Meegan is the owner of Top Shelf, a custom men’s clothing and tailoring store at 3040 Lyndale Ave. Also a resident of the neighborhood, Meegan is one of those who are upset with the city.

“In 35 years of living in Minneapolis, I have never seen a worse job than what they have done on the streets here,” Meegan said. “It absolutely has been making me sick to my stomach to see how much of the streets have been lost to the fact that we don’t plow even close to the curb.”

Because cars are parked on what would have been the right hand lane of Lyndale, traffic moves slowly down the road. Kennedy said the city does not plow all the way up to the curb because, with as much snow as this year, it would cover the sidewalks.

“Minneapolis residents seem to be kind of used to it, but suburban customers — people who come into the city to visit our businesses — can’t believe how bad it is and I do believe that many are staying away,” Meegan said.

On a positive note, Meegan said the Lyn-Lake special service district he helped form has been a big help to the businesses near the Lyndale and Lake intersection.

A special assessment levied on property owners for the first time this year has paid for a company to clear the sidewalks, remove snow from corners and cut openings from the street to the sidewalks.

“That has been an absolute beautiful thing to behold here in the district,” he said. “People can walk up and down the sidewalks. There are no places that aren’t shoveled.”

Like the city, Meegan expects the Lyn-Lake snow plowing budget to go over by about
33 percent.

The Downtown Improvement District went over its budget as well. Tasked with removing snow from Nicollet Mall, the DID went over its $225,000 2010 budget by about $75,000, said Sarah Harris, the DID’s chief operating officer.

The DID is in its second winter of staffing a team of “Ambassadors,” that keep the streets clean and help people navigate downtown.

Though it’s the job of property owners to shovel their own snow, the Ambassadors have lent a helping hand for problematic areas, Harris said.

“They go through the districts where there are problem areas and clear intersections to make sure it continues to be pedestrian friendly through downtown,” she said.

Metro Transit has also had its hands full in the wake of the snowfalls.

The 17-inch snowstorm marked the first time the entire bus system was suspended since 1991, Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons said. In December, Metro Transit recorded 203 bus accidents compared to 141 in December 2009. Metro Transit has a very broad definition of an accident, and the majority of incidents are as simple as dinging a bus sign.

Metro Transit had not compiled its on-time performance record for December as of press time. Gibbons said the Metro Transit goal is to have 90 percent of buses reach their stops within five minutes of their schedule.

“It’s not going to approach 90 percent at all,” he said.