City Council committee tiptoes toward sidewalk snow removal mandate

Chief sponsor Gilbert Villegas (36th) wanted to move more quickly, but his colleagues worry it could create an unrealistic and costly expectation.

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Snow removal worker shoveling the sidewalk on Monroe Street. Monday, January 24, 2022.

A City Council committee wants to test city snow removal on sidewalks beginning in January 2025.

Sun-Times file

Mandating municipal snow removal from Chicago sidewalks is as slippery as navigating an icy sidewalk in the dead of winter.

Once you create that political expectation, you own it. You have to deliver.

That’s apparently why the City Council is moving so slowly toward assuming that costly responsibility, even though the Plow the Sidewalks campaign has support from Mayor Brandon Johnson, his transition team, and two dozen alderpersons and advocacy groups.

The City Council’s Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety on Friday gave a handful of city departments — led by Streets and Sanitation, Transportation and the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities — 60 days to create a working group to study sidewalk snow removal and determine where and how to test the new service, the cost and how to pay for the pilot.

The testing ground would be chosen based on criteria that include a concentration of seniors, people with disabilities, families with young children, mass transit riders, and “zero-car” and low-income households.

The recommendations — including whether to hire private contractors or have city employees do the work — must be delivered “no later than May 31, 2024.” The goal is to launch the pilot program by January 2025.

Chief sponsor Gilbert Villegas (36th) wanted to move faster. But a barrage of questions from skeptical colleagues forced Villegas to slow down.

Ald. Marty Quinn (13th) led the warning brigade.

Quinn provides sidewalk snow removal to 760 homes for senior citizens in his Southwest Side ward and knows firsthand how costly it can be.

“If you don’t have equipment ordered by May 31, 2024, that artificial deadline that you report — Jan. 31, 2025 — you’ve already, in essence, failed, because you won’t be able to make that deadline if you don’t have equipment ordered,” Quinn told Villegas.

“If we were looking at doing this on a citywide basis at $35,000 a piece of equipment and 10 per ward, you’re looking at $17.5 million just in equipment. That’s not talking about backups or who’s going to drive the equipment or who’s going to manage the drivers or who’s going to get into managing when stuff breaks down. We’re talking about millions and millions of dollars here. … This is not just a drop in the bucket.”

Quinn also talked about the political “expectation” that comes with assuming responsibility for sidewalk snow and ice removal that now falls to adjacent property owners.

“Once we establish the expectation, that expectation is real and you’re on the clock and you have to deliver,” Quinn said.

“We don’t want to get into a situation where we’re chasing snowflakes. It’s a bad business to be in. ... You’re setting yourself up to fail and fail miserably. And if history suggests anything in this city, it’s that people lose elections because of snow.”

Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Cole Stallard noted one square mile of Chicago amounts to 128 city blocks.

“We want to do what’s right,” Stallard said. “But just know that it is a big undertaking.”

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