ITHACA, N.Y.—While the first big snowfall still seems a faraway prospect, one thing seems clear. The City of Ithaca is unlikely to take on the responsibility of clearing snow from sidewalks and curb cuts this winter, to the disappointment of the city’s disability, aging and walkability advocates.
As in most cities, property owners in Ithaca are responsible for clearing sidewalks of snow, but compliance can be spotty. Even if owners properly clear the snow from sidewalk corners, plowed snow from the roadway may later block the curb cut. Advocates have long pushed for the city to take on the task of clearing corners and sidewalks.
During a meeting of the Common Council’s City Administration Committee Wednesday night, Superintendent of Public Works Mike Thorne said the city doesn’t have the staff to clear sidewalks or curb cuts.
That echoes Thorne’s plight during budget season last year, when he reported that the Department of Public Works had only two-thirds of the necessary snow plow drivers, and was down 30 staff members total.
Thorne said hiring a contractor would be prohibitively complicated and expensive given Ithaca’s size and inconsistent snowfall.
“It’s highly uncommon for cities to do sidewalk snow removal,” Thorne said. “[The Department of Transportation] cites complexity and the cost.”
Thorne estimated that Ithaca would spend about $4,000 per mile each winter on sidewalk snow removal, not including any fees related to project or contract management.
“That is a lot of money for a project with a lifespan of maybe two weeks, a few days, a month at the most,” Thorne said. “As soon as that [snow] melts, it’s literally money down the drain.”
After the meeting, Ithaca resident Armin Heurich, a librarian at Ithaca High School and snow removal advocate, said he felt disappointed at Thorne’s characterization of a snow removal program as “money down the drain.”
“That statement really caught me off guard,” Heurich said. “I think about people who are mobility impaired who are really homebound during the wintertime. I also believe that we can’t call ourselves a walkable city if we’re not walkable every day of the year.”
Heurich and other advocates said they were hopeful that Thorne’s presentation would include details on a possible pilot program in which the city would handle snow removal on sidewalks, based on similar programs in Syracuse and Rochester.
Thorne and City of Ithaca Chief of Staff Deb Mohlenhoff have said they’ve been in communication with their counterparts in Syracuse to discuss the programs.
Syracuse piloted a limited sidewalk snow removal operation in 2019. The city currently removes snow from about 125 miles of sidewalk deemed to be major pedestrian thoroughfares. The program was made permanent in 2021 with an annual budget of $650,000.
During the meeting, Thorne said Syracuse public works employees echoed many of his own reservations about the program, particularly the difficulty of securing contractors.
“Syracuse could not get any bidders,” Thorne said. “So they had to go to one contractor and bid and negotiate a contract and they had issues with that, particularly with insurance and liability.”
Thorne said during the meeting that even if given the money to conduct the snow removal, he would want to dedicate his department’s resources to other, more pressing matters.
On Wednesday night, he suggested the city look into stricter penalties for property owners who do not clear sidewalks within a reasonable timeframe and clarifying city code to specify exactly who is responsible for removing snow from curb cuts—a point which has proven contentious in recent years. Thorne said he felt a more practical next step would be for the city to look into a volunteer program to target snow removal on a select few corners in key pedestrian areas.
Heurich said he was disappointed because he felt city officials had dismissed a Syracuse- or Rochester-style program out of hand.
“This is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Heurich said. “It is a city’s responsibility to do this. I don’t think [Ithaca] gets a pass because other cities get a pass. I think we’re a sea of compassionate people who want to make the city better.”
Heurich, who last year developed an interactive map of sidewalks that routinely go unshoveled, said he agreed that a better enforcement policy would help. He also said that a well-equipped group of volunteers would be a good start, but said that such an effort would need a level of coordination that doesn’t yet exist.
Longtime snow removal advocate Eric Lerner, organizer of the Coalition for Snow-Free Sidewalks and Crosswalks, has in the past urged city officials to consider the Syracuse model as a blueprint for a similar program in Ithaca.
Lerner said City Administration Committee chair and Democratic nominee for mayor, Rob Cantelmo, had previously expressed interest in the program.
“I’m hopeful the iceberg is beginning to crack,” Lerner said ahead of the meeting.
Even so, Lerner said he didn’t expect the city to make a move on the issue before next year’s budget was finalized—or in time for the upcoming winter season.