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No clear-cut solution to snow-covered sidewalks

It’s a tough walk along William Street toward downtown Buffalo.

There are some navigable spots. The U.S. Post Office, for example, gets kudos for its down-to-the cement sidewalk clearing. But on much of William, walking means taking it to the streets.

“It’s dangerous, dangerous,” said Tony Williams, 54, who was bundled up one recent morning while trekking on William from Fillmore Avenue to Bailey Avenue.

Then there are the side streets off William, marked by city-owned vacant lots that haven’t seen a shovel all winter.

A few miles out, in some of Buffalo’s larger suburbs, much of the concern over clogged sidewalks involves major thoroughfares like Niagara Falls Boulevard in the Town of Tonawanda and Sheridan Drive in Amherst, where pedestrians are sometimes spotted on the side of roads on which cars travel 30, 40 and even 50 mph.

“We’re really anxious for them to do something for the safety of the public,” said Peter Grollitsch, a Sheridan Drive resident. “Some people walk on the road and it’s not safe.”

It’s been a brutal winter.

After weeks of seemingly endless snow followed by subzero temperatures and no thaw, sidewalk complaints are piling up all over the Buffalo region.

There are pleas for a crackdown on private and municipal plows that toss snow on recently shoveled sidewalks.

There are pleas for a crackdown on property owners who don’t shovel their walks.

There are pleas from others asking municipalities to give them a little slack given how hard it can be for some – particularly the elderly – to keep up with the shoveling this year.

Amherst, for example, has received more than 340 sidewalk complaints since Jan. 1 – more than in all of 2014.

Buffalo has received 1,800 sidewalk calls – complaints as well as requests for help. The city has issued some 900 tickets, most on commercial properties.

“We do the best we can,” said Steven J. Stepniak, Buffalo’s Public Works commissioner. “It’s been a historic winter; the coldest in 140 years.”

But with sidewalks on most of Buffalo’s 7,500 city-owned vacant lots covered in snow, and residents forced to walk on numerous city streets, Stepniak said the city is looking to improve. “We are looking at what can be done,” the commissioner said.

Rochester’s system

Two years ago, an online petition asked the City of Buffalo to help clear residential sidewalks as is done in Rochester. The petition – posted by Lorna Peterson, a former University at Buffalo professor who relies on mass transportation – has been resurrected, and now has more than 550 signatures.

“After every snowfall, citizens, including schoolchildren, are forced to walk on treacherous snow-covered sidewalks or in the streets,” the petition says. “Buffalo’s neighbor to the east, Rochester, plows sidewalks at the public expense. We request that the City of Buffalo do the same.”

That doesn’t mean Rochester clears all of its sidewalks or that Rochester’s walks are all perfectly cleared. They’re not, officials there concede.

But that city does hire outside contractors to share sidewalk-clearing responsibilities with residents. Contractors plow Rochester’s 878 lane miles of sidewalks when at least 4 inches of fresh snow falls. The supplemental service costs the city about $1.1 million annually and is funded with a residential “embellishment fee” based on the front footage of property. The average homeowner pays $15 to $20 a year, said Norman Jones, commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Services.

Rochester also has its own stable of sidewalk plows. Sidewalks in front of the city’s 2,100 vacant lots are cleared, he said.

“Our system works well most of the time; all the time when you have a normal accumulation,” Jones said. “This is an extreme situation where there hasn’t been a thaw. The onus has to be on the residents and the city sharing the responsibility.”

Stepniak recently contacted Rochester officials as he considers ideas for Buffalo’s 1,600 lane miles of sidewalk.

“We learn from folks that are doing it,” Stepniak said. “We have to know costs and best practices, based on an average year – not a historic one.”

Help in the suburbs

Smaller communities, like Williamsville and the Village of Hamburg, have long plowed sidewalks as a little perk to residents for living in the village and paying village taxes.

“For a typical snowfall, 6 inches and under, it will probably take us two days to do the entire village,” said Marc Shuttleworth, Hamburg’s superintendent of public works. “Usually it takes a day to do the business district and the school district. Then, we branch out to the residential.”

Likewise, East Aurora clears sidewalks when crews are available, and Kenmore tackles sidewalks along the main routes, such as Delaware and Elmwood avenues and Colvin Boulevard.

Amherst, Erie County’s largest suburb, is now tinkering with sidewalk snowplowing, too.

Over the past few years, the town has created “sidewalk snow relief districts.” The first includes the Amherst side of Niagara Falls Boulevard, between Kenmore and Betina avenues, as well as Maple Road between Millersport Highway and Transit Road. The second district comprises an assortment of sidewalks that run along the rear of properties, making access by the owners extraordinarily difficult.

Now, this year, the town is clearing sidewalks in the districts for a fee: 60 cents per linear foot of frontage. Based on this difficult winter, the town may have underestimated the cost, amount of work, man hours and equipment needed to tackle its sidewalk program.

Amherst crews busy

Eight highway workers were out plowing sidewalks just about every day throughout February, said Dan Riley, the general crew chief in charge of the Amherst program.

“It’s a daunting task,” Riley said. “We’re doing our best, but we’re in the same boat as so many people.”

Now, more Amherst residents want into the program.

Grollitsch and several of his neighbors on Sheridan Drive petitioned the town to be included in the sidewalk district. Two snowplows tend to travel side by side up and down Sheridan, a state road, so when they come through fast, the snow flies and piles up on the sidewalk, Grollitsch said.

Residents can’t keep up.

“The town has a program and we feel we are qualified for it,” Grollitsch said.

On a recent afternoon, crews were traveling up and down both sides of Maple Road with snow-fighting equipment to carve a path for pedestrians.

The sidewalk clearings were a little more disjointed along Sheridan Drive, where the town plows some sections but leaves others impassable.

“I don’t know how I’m doing it but I’m keeping up,” said John Rozak, 60, a caretaker who was plowing in front of his Sheridan Drive property last week. “I’m getting a little sick of it, though.”

Most local communities, however, like the towns of Tonawanda, West Seneca and Hamburg, say they have their hands full with plowing streets and haven’t ventured into clearing sidewalks.

“For us to actually try to clean our sidewalks would be an impossibility,” said Hamburg Highway Superintendent Thomas M. Best Sr. “We don’t want to start that because once you do, you’re liable.”

Deadly consequences

Buffalo’s suburbs have been particularly sensitive to sidewalk issues since 2001, when three teenagers were fatally struck on Niagara Falls Boulevard while walking in the street because sidewalks were impassable.

Then, in 2010, a 29-year-old man was killed while walking on Transit Road in West Seneca, between French and Clinton. The piles of snow that evening made sidewalks impassable.

“It’s a much bigger concern along major roadways, because that’s where you have more lanes, higher speeds,” said Thomas Ketchum, Amherst’s building commissioner.

Suburban officials also hear complaints from residents of side streets and subdivisions, often about private plows pushing snow onto sidewalks that homeowners spent the morning cleaning.

Residents frequently ask for names of neighborhood kids who want to earn a few bucks shoveling, said Andrew Mang, Kenmore’s superintendent of public works. But you don’t see a lot of youth chipping in these days, he said.

“A lot of our residents are seniors,” Mang said. “They just can’t get out there and keep their sidewalks clear. How do you enforce that? There are no easy answers.”

Difficult areas

There is concern in Buffalo about motorists and pedestrians sharing the city’s commercial streets.

After a rough start of this snow-filled season, Main Street sidewalks seem in good shape now. During a ride up and down Main at the end of last week, no pedestrians were spotted walking on the street. Ditto for most of Elmwood and Delaware avenues. The sidewalks weren’t as hospitable on Hertel Avenue, nor on William, Clinton or Bailey. Even the sidewalk in front of a Bailey Avenue fire station was tough to trudge on.

But Buffalo’s sidewalk situation goes beyond its major thoroughfares, and is somewhat unique because of the large number of abandoned buildings, out-of-town landlords and vacant lots in some East Side neighborhoods.

Buffalo owns some 7,500 vacant lots, many of which were left after abandoned, run-down houses had been demolished and the lots taken over by the city. Relatively few are shoveled out.

Thursday morning, Edwin Thatcher was working hard, a shovel in one hand, an ice pick in the other, clearing the driveway and sidewalk in front of his home on Wilson Street off Broadway. He had the driveway cleared right down to the cement, and was still working on the sidewalk.

“My mother told me to shovel so we don’t get ticketed,” said Thatcher, 25. “I’m not sure it makes sense. There’s nowhere to walk.”

The vacant lot on one side of Thatcher’s home is privately owned; the four vacant lots on the other side are owned by the city, according to real estate records. None of the sidewalks along these vacant lots – on either side of where Thatcher lives – was cleared.

They haven’t been cleared all winter, Thatcher said.

“It’s a very difficult situation,” said Buffalo Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen. “The city did not go out to buy the properties, but got stuck with them when they were abandoned. Imagine what it would cost if the city sent crews to clear one sidewalk?”

Fillmore District Council Member David A. Franczyk agreed. “The city inherited this mess. It got stuck with so much vacant property, most of it from slumlords,” he said. “There is no army of people to clear the snow.”

Still, Franczyk said, he worries about people walking on streets because of snow-clogged sidewalks. “It makes me nervous to see people laden with bags walking in the snow,” he said.

Progress cited

The city does clear sidewalks in front of municipal buildings, community centers, vacant schools and city parks. In addition, Buffalo – through the Mayor’s Impact Team and organizations such as AmeriCorps – helped 1,500 seniors and handicapped residents shovel out, Stepniak said.

He also said less than 5 percent of the 1,800 sidewalk calls the city received – less than 90 – involved city-owned vacant properties. The city sent someone to shovel out the vacant properties people complained about, he said.

Stepniak said the city must prioritize how it uses its resources, particularly when there is record-breaking cold in addition to heavy snow as is the case this year. It’s more important, he said, to send someone to help elderly people who call for help than to shovel out vacant properties that pedestrians may not be using.

“We respond when people call,” Stepniak said, adding: “I think people realize this is a historic year and we are doing our best.”

Residents living on side streets off William and Broadway told The Buffalo News people don’t complain to City Hall because they don’t think they would get results.

“They don’t do anything here,” Lucille Harper, 36, of Detroit Street, said of the city. She was walking in the middle of nearby Coit Street because sidewalks on vacant lots were covered in 2 feet of snow.

“They don’t do it,” said Reggie Thompson as he looked at snow-covered sidewalks on vacant lots near his Wilson Street home. “It’s been that way for years.”

email: sschulman@buffnews.com and jrey@buffnews.com