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Buffalo and area municipalities must commit to doing a better job of clearing sidewalks of snow

Buffalo was first settled by Europeans in the late 1700s. Ever since then and, presumably, for millennia before, it has been subject to ferocious winter storms. Can it really be that more than 200 years later, the city and its suburban neighbors still haven’t figured out how to keep sidewalks open?

It’s challenging, to be sure, but it’s also necessary and a predictable need. People have died in recent years because the sidewalks were choked with snow. In 2001, three teenagers will killed walking on Niagara Falls Boulevard. In 2010, a 29-year-old man was killed walking on Transit Road in West Seneca.

And, in fairness, municipal leaders appear to understand the need and are looking for ways to meet it. It’s just that the region has more then enough winters under its snowbelt to have come up with workable solutions.

Some leaders observe that this winter has been especially difficult for cities, businesses and property-owners to keep up with the onslaught of snow, especially given the bitterly cold temperatures that have accompanied it. It’s a fair point, but it only helps to answer this year’s difficulties. It does nothing to explain why, year after year, there are problems, sometimes lethal ones, in keeping the sidewalks clear.

One idea gaining useful traction is for Buffalo to adopt Rochester’s system of clearing sidewalks. The idea, broached two years ago in an online petition, is gaining new traction, with more than 550 signatures on the petition.

Basically, Rochester plows sidewalks at public expense. While officials there concede that their system isn’t perfect, it is doing a better job than Buffalo or its suburbs. Private contractors, who share sidewalk-clearing responsibilities with residents, plow the city’s 878 lane miles of sidewalk when at least 4 inches of new snow falls.

That service costs the city about $1.1 million a year and is funded with a residential fee based on the front footage of property. The average homeowner pays $15 to $20 a year. In addition, Rochester has its own fleet of sidewalk plows.

Steven J. Stepniak, Buffalo’s Public Works commissioner, has contacted Rochester officials as he looks for ways to keep Buffalo’s 1,600 lane miles of sidewalk cleared in the winter. That’s a start.

There are other solutions, too. Amherst is clearing sidewalks in “sidewalk snow relief districts” for 60 cents per linear foot of frontage. That cost could add up over a winter such as this one. Nevertheless, residents who are not in one of those districts are clamoring to get in. There is a clear demand for the service.

Some problems are just going to be difficult. Elderly residents may not have the strength to shovel their sidewalks and some may not have the money to hire someone to do the job – if someone can even be found.

But some problems do have a solution. They include fining those who simply refuse to clear their sidewalks. They include municipalities, which must take responsibility for vacant lots they control.

If there are no easy answers, as Kenmore’s superintendent of public works, Andrew Mang, said, there are improvements. That should be the goal each year so that when 2215 rolls around, residents won’t still be wondering why no one has been able to figure this out.