By the time next winter's snow starts flying, Buffalo's plowing brigades may have some new tools for making many sidewalks more pedestrian-friendly.
The head of the Streets Sanitation Division told block club leaders and city lawmakers Monday that he wants to buy new all-season machines that clean sidewalks of debris in warmer weather and plow snow in the winter.
"They're neat little machines," said Paul Sullivan. "In the summer, they'll suck up cigarette butts from sidewalk cracks. In the winter, they remove snow and even have a de-icing feature."
Sullivan discussed the plan at a City Hall meeting that turned contentious at times. Several community advocates criticized streets crews for largely ignoring the challenges that pedestrians face as they struggle to climb snow piles near street corners and cope with icy sidewalks around vacant lots and public properties.
"The only city sidewalk that seems to get done is right around City Hall," said BillDurfee, vice president of Alternative Transportation for Buffalo, an advocacy group for pedestrians, cyclists and public transit users.
Joyce Baer, a North Buffalo resident who is involved with a coalition called the Sidewalks Snow Removal Advocacy Group, urged the city to modify its snow control plan to address pedestrian needs.
"The mature woman who is forced to walk in the street because of an accumulation of snow and ice on the sidewalk is not just an expendable old lady," Baer told the Common Council's Snow Removal Task Force. "She may be a wife and mother, a child care worker or a doctor, a teacher or food service worker."
Sullivan told critics "it's easy to sit there and criticize" the city's efforts, but he is convinced that major strides have been made in helping to ease the winter plight of pedestrians.
He said more than 400 summonses have been written this winter citing property owners for failing to shovel their sidewalks. He claimed city crews have also made an effort to clear walks around schools, viaducts and bridges.
"We've come a long way, but we realize that we still have a ways to go," Sullivan said.
He told the task force that the new multipurpose sidewalk cleaners being used in a few other cities -- including Philadelphia and Chicago -- could provide a new twist for snow removal efforts in Buffalo.
A spokesman for Chicago's Department of Streets and Sanitation said the city purchased 25 sidewalk cleaners a few years ago. Raymond Padvoiskis said the machines have primarily been used to sweep and vacuum walks during the summer months. He said the cleaners have only been used on a limited basis during winters to remove light dustings of snow.
"There are several different models out there, and I'm not sure which machines Buffalo is looking at," said Padvoiskis. "The ones we're using are a little lighter and might have problems during heavier snowfalls."
A media liaison for Philadelphia's mayor confirmed that similar equipment is used to maintain the city's downtown core.
Sullivan said Niagara Council Member Dominic J. Bonifacio Jr. has been playing a lead role in trying to obtain two all-purpose sidewalk cleaners for the Lower West Side. The concept was initially discussed a few years ago when Robert Quintana was Niagara Council member and proposed a pilot project using devices that are sometimes called "green machines."
Staffing and funding issues must be addressed before the city acquires the vehicles, which cost just under $20,000 apiece. He said operators can either drive the cleaners or walk them down sidewalks. Sullivan said he will likely seek funding in his budget request that will be considered by the Masiello administration this spring.
"If these machines do what I think they can do, we might be able to use them citywide in future winters," he said.
Sullivan also underscored the need to work more closely with neighborhood block clubs during the winter months. He said streets crews work cooperatively with the groups on summer cleanup initiatives. Sullivan said block clubs can be the city's eyes and ears when it comes to dealing with pedestrian-related problems throughout the city.