If there’s anything we learned about Sitka’s snow and ice in December, it’s that we need to reevaluate how we clear our sidewalks in the winter. Our current system isn’t working.
Like most cities around the country, our roads are plowed by the City and Borough of Sitka (or the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, depending on who maintains the road). But the clearing of snow and ice on sidewalks, which also are public rights of way, is left to the owners of the adjacent properties. The Sitka regulations can be found in Chapter 14.04 (Ice and Snow Removal, under Chapter 14: Streets and Sidewalks) of the Sitka General Code.
Basically, the code says the property owners have a reasonable time after a snowfall to clear the sidewalks, making them “free of snow and ice and clear of all other obstructions or menaces dangerous to life or limb.” If the snow and ice isn’t cleared within a reasonable time, the chief of police or municipal engineer can have the sidewalk cleared and pass the expense on to the property owners, which are listed as a lien on the property until the costs are paid. This is fairly common code in communities around the country.
But there are problems with it. First, there’s the issue of why are public rights of way for cars maintained by the city or state when the sidewalks aren’t. Then there’s the issue of enforcement. Very few communities adequately enforce these regulations. Another issue is what happens when you have absentee property owners or government property owners (such as by the Russian graveyard on Marine Street) who don’t maintain the sidewalk? Finally, this system lends itself to a patchwork system of sidewalk clearing, where the sidewalk in front of one business or house is cleared down to the cement but right next door the owner only did a halfway job and left lumpy piles of snow and ice on the sidewalk.
It’s time for a more consistent snow and ice clearance policy in Sitka, especially in the downtown business district. As communities start paying more attention to making themselves walking and biking friendly, they need to remember that they need to be friendly over all seasons. You can have a walk friendly community in the summer, but you lose it in the winter if you let the snow and ice take over the sidewalks so people are afraid of falling and breaking a hip. In recent weeks in Sitka, it’s been so icy that even wearing ice cleats hasn’t been much of a help. Our community is aging, and falls can be deadly to our elders. In some winters we have several feet of snow, and sometimes plows dump the snow in the sidewalk or leave berms that make it harder for drivers to see walkers. Several communities around the world have been sued for not keeping sidewalks walkable in the winter, so spending a little bit of money now on maintenance could prevent a larger damage award later.
About 5-6 years ago, when Sitka received more snow, the city put out a bid for someone to clear the downtown sidewalks under a contract. But it didn’t happen, and we didn’t get much snow for several winters so it wasn’t an issue.
For a good example of how a consistent downtown snow and ice policy could work, look to the Sitka campus at the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC), which owns a couple of small truck/tractors with blades on the front and sand-spreaders on the back to keep the sidewalks walkable from Mount Edgecumbe Hospital down to the Community Health Building and other program facilities on the lower campus. The city already owns a small truck/tractor with a blade on the front and sand-spreader on the back, so it would be nice to see it make a couple of runs at Lincoln Street, Marine Street and other high-traffic walking streets during the winter.
Another option is to use some technology developed in 2010 at the University of Alaska Anchorage that automatically melts the snow and ice off the sidewalk. UAA professor Joey Yang developed the technology after his father slipped and broke his thumb during a visit to Anchorage from his home in China. The system uses carbon fiber pieces embedded in the four-inch sidewalk concrete that can be turned on before a storm and turned off after it’s over to save energy. The system was tested in a couple of campus locations before being installed in front of the UAA School of Engineering Building and UAA Bookstore. The system only costs about two cents per square foot per day to operate, and it’s only on when a storm is coming.