Time for Sitka to restructure how it clears snow and ice from the sidewalks

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Ice blankets the sidewalk of Baranof Street on Dec. 24, 2016 (Photo posted to the Sitka Chatters group on Facebook by Louise C. Brady)

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.

chapter-14-04Like 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.

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A sidewalk cleared in front of one business, but not another during the 2013 winter.

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.

SEARHC has a couple of small truck/tractors with blades on the front and sand-spreaders on the back to clear sidewalks on its Sitka campus.

SEARHC has a couple of small truck/tractors with blades on the front and sand-spreaders on the back to clear sidewalks on its Sitka campus.

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.

Joey Yang, a civil engineering professor at UAA, developed and implemented a cost-effective heated sidewalk in two campus locations (and counting). (Photo by Joey Yang, University of Alaska Anchorage)

Joey Yang, a civil engineering professor at UAA, developed and implemented a cost-effective heated sidewalk in two campus locations (and counting). (Photo by Joey Yang, University of Alaska Anchorage)

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.

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Sitka Trail Works to host trail maintenance day on Saturday, Sept. 17

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SitkaTrailWorksLogoSitka Trail Works board members are hosting a trail maintenance day at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 17, meeting at the parking area on the uphill side of the road just beyond Whale Park.

The effort will focus on pulling young alders on the ocean-side of the Sawmill Creek Road separated multi-use path, past Whale Park, to keep the view open. Participants are asked to bring work gloves and five-gallon buckets.

For further information, please call the Sitka Trail Works office at 747-7244.

Sitka Planning Commission to discuss Sitka Comprehensive Plan, Katlian walkability on Aug. 2

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Mary Ann Peterson of the Celebrate Katlian Street group, left, and Paul Wistrand of the Juneau office of the Federal Highway Authority check out a Katlian Street curb cut during a May 2015 walkability assessment of the street.

Thumb_DigitalLogo2016422110743The Sitka Planning Commission will discuss the 2030 Sitka Comprehensive Plan during its meeting from 7-9 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 2, at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Founders Hall (235 Katlian Street).

In addition, the meeting agenda includes looking at a policy for acquisition, disposal and retention of municipally owned land, and the group will break into teams to conduct a walkability assessment on Katlian Street.

Improving the walkability of Katlian Street has been a community wellness goal since the 2014 Sitka Health Summit, when the Celebrate Katlian Street: A Vibrant Community group was created. In addition to improving the walkability of Katlian Street, the group also has been trying to improve business opportunities and is working on a historical district application.

In May 2015, federal, state and city officials conducted several walkability and bikeability assessments around Sitka, including on Katlian Street. A walkability assessment looks at a variety of conditions, such as the condition of the sidewalk pavement (is it fractured, is it wide enough, are there power poles blocking wheelchairs), how the sidewalks link different communities (including those higher on the hill above Katlian), how is the land along the street being used (residential, industrial, business, etc.), how inviting the area is to walking, how safe is it for walking, etc. More details are in the document attached below.

• Walkability and Walking Tour Assessment of Land Use

• Aug. 2, 2016, Sitka Planning Commission Agenda

Please sign our petition to reduce the default speed limit to 20 mph in Sitka neighborhoods

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An online petition has been launched to make 20 mph the default speed limit in Sitka neighborhoods to improve safety. Please sign the petition, so we can take the results to the Sitka Assembly and whichever commissions need to act on this.

Recently the states of Washington and Oregon changed their laws to allow communities to reduce the speed limits in residential neighborhoods to 20 mph for safety reasons. This is part of an international campaign called “20 is Plenty” trying to make neighborhood streets safer for pedestrians. The 20 is Plenty campaign also has been integrated into the “Vision Zero” programs in many states, including New York, Washington, and Oregon, to eliminate pedestrian and cycling deaths.

In Sitka, many of our residential neighborhoods have higher speed limits. For example, Marine Street is all residential except for one church but the speed limit is 25 mph and many cars drive faster on this street where lots of kids play (there is a playground a block away). Slowing down speeds in our neighborhoods helps make it safer for kids and elders, especially since some neighborhoods have no sidewalks.

Also, if someone gets hit by a car at 20 mph they are more likely to survive than if they get hit at 25 mph or higher speeds. The odds of death in a car-pedestrian collision are 5 percent for 20 mph, compared to 45 percent for 30 mph and 85 percent for 40 mph. Sitka already has a 15 mph speed limit on Katlian Street, so why not make the default speed limit for residential neighborhoods 20 mph. This link has more information about why 20 is plenty.

• Click this link to sign the petition.

SEARHC to kick off community-wide ‘Walk For The Health Of It’ on Saturday, June 27

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The SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) is hosting a five-week “Walk for the Health of It” event June 27 through July 31.

The community-wide event aims at encouraging all Sitkans to improve their health by walking at least 150 minutes a week. That’s just 20 to 30 minutes a day.

The kick-off event is at 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 27, in the front parking lot of S’áxt’ Hít Mount Edgecumbe Hospital. SEARHC physical therapist, Gio Villanueva will lead the opening stretch, and the first 100 participants will receive a free water bottle.

According the American Heart Association, out of countless physical activities, walking has the lowest dropout rate of them all. Research also has shown the benefits of walking and moderate physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day can help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, improve blood pressure and blood sugar levels, maintain body weight and lower the risk of obesity, enhance mental well-being, reduce the risk of osteoporosis, reduce the risk of breast and colon cancer, and reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Participation in “Walk For The Health Of It” is easy. Registration can be completed online at searhc.org/walk-for-the-health-of-it or by using a paper form. Forms are available at Mount Edgecumbe Hospital or the Hames Athletic and Wellness Center where participants may also pick up a walking card to track daily walking activity. Walking may be tracked in minutes, steps or distance.

Each Friday completed walking cards are to be turned in at the Hames Athletic and Wellness Center or Mount Edgecumbe Hospital. Those cards then will be entered into a drawing for a fun prize.

For more information, please contact Lesa Way at 966-8804 or lesa.way@searhc.org.

Assessing the walking safety of Katlian Street and other parts of Sitka

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KatlianCurbCutMaryAnnPetersonPaulWistrandASSESSING SAFETY: Top photo: Paul Wistrand of the Federal Highway Authority’s Juneau office, left, and Mary Ann Peterson of the Celebrate Katlian Street: A Vibrant Community project from the 2014 Sitka Health Summit assess the walking safety of Katlian Street on Wednesday, May 6. Right photo: Mary Ann Peterson shows Paul Wistrand how a curb cut is a tripping hazard on Katlian Street. The tour was part of a safety assessment conducted through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “Safer People, Safer Streets” initiative. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx mandated federal, state and local communities do walking and cycling safety assessments, and Wistrand said they chose Sitka for Alaska’s first safety assessments. In addition to Wednesday’s walking safety assessment of Katlian Street, Wistrand also led a group of local and state officials on a walking assessment from downtown to the Alaska Raptor Center and a cycling assessment of Halibut Point Road on Thursday, May 7.

Federal Highway Administration to host two walking/biking safety assessment tours May 7 in Sitka

Pedestrian Bicycle Assessment Invitation for State and Local Partners

Paul Wistrand of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will lead two tours, one walking and one biking, to assess the safety of roads/pathways on Thursday, May 7, in Sitka. (NOTE: The schedule has been revised from what originally was published.)

“I’m looking forward to the bike/pedestrian safety assessment,” Wistrand wrote in an email. “It would be great to get a couple of bicyclists and/or walkers to join us in the assessment, and get their feedback and input into what bicycle and pedestrian features have had the greatest impact in the community.”

Walkers check out the Sitka Sea Walk during its October 2013 grand opening

Walkers check out the Sitka Sea Walk during its October 2013 grand opening

The walking safety assessment meets at Harrigan Centennial at 9 a.m., and after some introductory comments will include a the first segment of the hike along the Sitka Sea Walk to Sitka National Historical Park. The second segment of the hike will be to the Alaska Raptor Center, before participants return to Harrigan Centennial Hall and a lunch break. After lunch, participants will meet back at Harrigan Centennial Hall to mount bicycles for a bike tour along Halibut Point Road to Pioneer Park (near Sea Mart) and back. After each tour segment, participants will complete a short evaluation form. Maps are part of the first attachment linked below.

“The assessment will be a great way to get end users and officials from local, state and federal levels who are involved with bicycle and pedestrian facilities together,” Wistrand wrote. “It’s also a chance to highlight the many improvements to these facilities in Sitka that have contributed to Sitka’s twice being recognized as a bronze-level bike/walk friendly community.”

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announces the Safer People, Safer Streets Initiative during the Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place convention in September 2014.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announces the Safer People, Safer Streets Initiative during the Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place convention in September 2014.

These safety assessments are part of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “Safer People, Safer Streets” initiative, where Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx mandated USDOT field offices to partner with state and local communities to do corridor-level safety assessments. One of the reasons for these tours is to help transportation planners, state and local officials, and others learn more about some of the challenges faced by non-motorized transportation users. The safety assessment tours are free and open to the public.

In addition to the publicly announced safety assessments, federal, state and local representatives will be walking and biking other parts of Sitka to rate those areas. One of the additional walking assessments will be of Katlian Street and interested participants can meet with Paul at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, May 6, at the Totem Square Inn hotel lobby.

For more information and to RSVP for the free tours, contact Paul Wistrand at 1-907-586-7148 or paul.wistrand@dot.gov.

• Sitka Bike and Pedestrian Assessment Invitation

• Revised Sitka walking and biking safety assessment schedule

• Sample Sitka walking and biking assessment scoresheet

• Safer People, Safer Streets Iniatiative