Clearing key corners: Is it an issue of access or equity?

Clearing key corners: Is it an issue of access or equity?

As snowflakes start to fly, St. Paul is gearing up for winter snow events. One small program, which began as a pilot effort in winter 2018-2019, could continue make a big difference for people with disabilities. The St. Paul Department of Public Works plans to again have the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Better Futures Network clear snow at 15 selected intersections. 

But that public-private partnership is being scrutinized by some St. Paul City Council members. While applauding the goal of maintaining access for people with disabilities, they also wonder if the city is providing a service private property owner are supposed to deliver. St. Paul requires that all property owners clear sidewalks of snow and ice within 24 hours after the end of a snowfall. Public sidewalks on all sides of a property are to be shoveled, the full width of the sidewalk to the bare pavement, including corners. 

The proposed 2020 Public Works budget includes an additional $75,000 toward a corner snow removal program meant to clear snow and ice and improve accessibility. The change would bring the winter street maintenance budget up to $4,384,045. The additional money comes from the city’s parking fund, which is derived from parking ramp revenues. 

The program began in winter 2018-2019 with a $50,00 allocation, said Public Works Director Kathy Lantry. Public Under the agreement with Better Futures, snow is shoveled at 15 intersections or 60 corners twice during each snow event. The funds for the coming winter would continue the program for 2020. The 2019 funds have been exhausted, after heavy snows earlier this year. 

The 15 intersections are at West 7th and Maynard streets, Rice Street and Wheelock Parkway, Dale Street and University Avenue, the East Side’s SunRay Transit Center, Robert and Isabel streets, the Ford-Finn bus station, Rice Street and Maryland Avenue, Rice and University, 5th and Market streets, 6th and Jackson/ Robert, Snelling and University avenues, University and Pascal Street, 7th Street and Maria Avenue, White Bear and Larpenteur avenues, and Maryland and Clarence avenues. The intersections were in the program for 2018- 2019 and will be targeted again in 2019-2020. 

The idea for the shoveling project was from the city’s innovation team, which includes staff from several departments. Intersections were selected in collaboration with Metro Mobility, the paratransit service overseen by Metro Transit and Metropolitan Council. 

The program allows the city to partner with a community organization that provides jobs, said Lantry. It also provides hand shoveling and more attention to intersections than the city provide with its equipment. 

Better Futures Network works with men who have had a history of issues including incarceration, homelessness, poverty and mental and physical health challenges. The program has the goals of providing jobs and protecting the environment. Better Futures runs a building deconstruction and materials reuse program, with a warehouse on Minnehaha Avenue in Minneapolis. 

P.J. Hubbard, vice president of operations for Better Futures Network, said the program not only helps people with mobility issues, it also provides jobs for men who struggle to find employment and build an employment record. “It’s an important program on two levels,” he said. 

St. Paul is the only city Better Futures Network does shoveling for. The nonprofit maintains more than 200 properties so shoveling is nothing new. 

Lantry said the shoveling at the corners isn’t tied to snow emergencies but is based on need. “When one of the intersections needs to be shoveled, we call Better Futures and they do it,” she said. 

Ward Two Council Member Rebecca Noecker said that while she understands the need to get walks cleared, she asked if the city is taking on a burden that should be borne by private property owners. “I question the fairness of asking us to pay,” she said. 

Lantry responded that the intent is not to take the burden off of private property owners, but to have an outcome that helps people with mobility issues get to transit. She also said that working with a nonprofit that provides jobs and opportunities is consistent with the city’s focus on racial and economic equity. “Working with Better futures helps us meet a lot of goals we have as a city,’ she said. 

Ward Four Council Member Mitra Jalali Nelson also expressed mixed feelings about the program, saying that why she applauds the goals, she does question whether it is equitable. She has the Seal Hi-Rise in her ward, a South St. Anthony Park Public Housing Agency apartment building that houses many people with disabilities. Residents may be able to get out of their building, but then struggle with snow removal issues along Raymond Avenue and Territorial Road.