This February saw record-breaking snowfall in the Twin Cities area. As any Minneapolis resident could see — whether traveling by car, foot, bus or bike — our city’s infrastructure was not up to the challenge. That went double for the Metro Transit system, which needs all the support it can get these days. As a longtime reader of and new contributor to streets.mn, I am familiar with the best arguments about the importance of public transportation. But nothing has made me experience that more than having to rely on the bus to get to work during a winter that has stymied city road crews and state agencies.
My story begins after the first major snowfall, during the first full week of February. I live with my wife on Dean Parkway in Minneapolis and rely on two bus stops to get to my job: one in front of Calhoun Beach Club and another farther east where it sometimes is easier to catch the bus driver’s eye, located in front of a “luxury” apartment building, The Lakes Residences.
On this day I was confronted with a problem: a massive pile of snow at the Calhoun Beach Club stop that had built up in front of the bench due to the frequent plowing on Lake Street. For several days, I stood on top of this huge edifice in the hope of waving down the bus (which sometimes worked). Things did not get much better the next few days when I tried to use the stop in front of The Lakes.
I again would have to stand on a pile of snow to wave down the driver and then walk out onto Lake Street (among the most heavily trafficked in the metro) to board the bus. Yes, it was dangerous, but I considered it a better outcome than having the bus pass me by, which has happened more than once at the stop in front of the Club.
And, of course, more snow fell, which only compounded the issue.
After about a week of this, I began my futile effort to pin responsibility on a local government agency. My (former) City Council member, Linea Palmisano, had informed me in an earlier conversation that Hennepin County is responsible for maintaining the sidewalks along Lake Street. Well, maybe.
Finally standing off two old folks who had dominated the discussion at a recent Cedar-Isles-Dean Neighborhood Association (CIDNA) board meeting — insisting that renters’ rights were less important than their homeowner rights — I asked County Commissioner Marion Greene why these sidewalks weren’t getting plowed and why the bus stops were piled with snow. She said she would get back to me. Her office later told me that the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board actually is responsible for part of the sidewalks I need to traverse. They also pointed me back to the city, as did someone at Metro Transit, about keeping the benches clear at bus stops. Through a source at the Minneapolis Public Works Department, I got the name of a company, US Bench, that maintains these two stops in my neighborhood and apparently owns some 2,000 bus benches throughout the metro.
Once I contacted US Bench, this area finally was cleared. But it didn’t stay clear for long.
My US Bench contact passed the buck regarding the next stop to Greystar, which runs The Lakes. After I bugged them via email, this stop, too, was cleared away. A member of the concierge service told me a maintenance person would be checking the area, that this snowfall was the worst they had experienced in three years of operation, and the snow and ice mixture was difficult to chip away at first.
Metro Transit does have a snow removal policy on its website, which guides how the agency handles over 2,500 sheltered bus stops. Under “priority #4” it states: “At its shelters, Metro Transit will clear snow and ice from the shelter and clear a six-foot area around the shelter. In addition, Metro Transit staff will create a four-foot wide walkway from the shelter to the bus stop.” Apparently (h/t Daniel Choma) other cities have their own, individual policies when it comes to snow clearing, and St. Paul has a contract with a different media company for many of its benches.
Through my source at Public Works, I was able to speak with Mike Kennedy, director of maintenance for these crews. According to Mr. Kennedy, the city doesn’t actually have much to do with this problem, which he described as a “murky situation” that is run through a contract with US Bench. He confirmed that Minneapolis holds property owners responsible for their sidewalks, but that the ubiquitous advertising benches all over our fair city are the company’s problem.
Mr. Kennedy did inform me about the “corner crew,” a group of maintenance workers that shovels out sidewalk corners (nearly 16,000 of which are in Minneapolis alone); unfortunately, due to the heavy snowfall in February, they could never finish anywhere, he said.
This notion of February containing an abnormal amount of snow was a fairly common response to my inquiries, but it does not bode well for the future of our metro area. Given the massive weekend blizzard in April 2018 and this February’s record-setting snowfall — as well as higher levels of freezing rain — it should be apparent that climate change in Minnesota is going to affect mobility, transportation and city operations in ways we may not have even considered yet. Climate change must be discussed at neighborhood associations and city meetings, as it will present one of the great challenges of our time.
(Update: MPR News is reporting that Metro Transit is planning to take major steps to improve its customer service and snow removal practices, and to deal with other issues on light rail trains. Watch streets.mn for my updates on these issues.)