Winter is coming

The Montgomery County Council enacted my bill that aims to better prepare the County for future snow seasons by creating a Sidewalk Snow Removal Plan. I first introduced the bill last April, with support from Councilmember Nancy Navarro, after a particularly long and snowy winter that led to some sidewalks remaining buried in snow for long stretches at a time.

Below are the remarks I made at the Council session.

Last winter, a resident named Bill Smith sent me a photograph of a long stretch of sidewalk that was covered with ice, inside a central business district, several days after one of the ice storms that hit the county. Mr. Smith has a visual impairment and does not drive. He needed to use this sidewalk in order to get to the store. As we can all appreciate, walking over ice is very dangerous, and falls are common. By not ensuring that the adjacent property owner, a church, had cleared the sidewalk, Mr. Smith felt that the county was failing to meet the vital needs of its residents. It was hard to disagree, especially since we have a law on the books requiring property owners to clear adjacent sidewalks within 24 hours of a storm, an important law championed by Councilmember Phil Andrews.

I believe we can do better. Not only can we do better, but with the operational excellence of our DOT, I think we have an opportunity to lead the nation.

The goal of this bill is to make our county more walkable, in every season. This bill promotes public safety and mobility as well as resiliency—by making it safer for people to walk where they need to go, including to our transit corridors, after major storm events — which increasingly seem like the new normal for our region.

The Sidewalk Snow Removal Plan is intended to improve how the County Government fulfills the vision of our law requiring snow removal.

Fundamentally, it requires the county to create a plan for sidewalk snow removal.

By requiring a plan, the bill will establish an iterative process for improving how the county handles sidewalk snow removal, where resources can be prioritized effectively and according to lessons learned.

The Plan ensures flexibility in implementation for the executive branch, because that is necessary for an operational issue such as sidewalk snow removal.

For this coming winter, PIO, DHCA and urban districts can improve their operations, while DOT creates the plan itself and implements the highest priority provisions of the plan according to available resources.

The executive branch can begin immediately with provisions of the law that call for communications plans and public education campaigns, including a website that helps residents engage on this issue.

The county can also begin to build the digital map of sidewalks in the County, which will be used in the future to improve the plan. This map is expected to take about three months to create, according to DOT, and will have many useful applications all year round.

The Sidewalk Snow Removal Plan will be published on the County website, and will provide details about how we handle access for priority areas including:

  1. Bus-stops and metro stations
  2. Near schools
  3. Along state highways (in discussion with DOT, DOT recommends beginning with primary and secondary arterials, which is preferable and includes most state highways)
  4. Along the highest priority pedestrian routes
  5. In urban districts
  6. on Hiker-biker trails

Due to resource limitations, the plan will not result in the removal of all snow from all public property in every location every time it snows. Instead, the plan is intended to help the county rationalize where it does spend money, and budget appropriately — through the Council budget process — for sidewalk snow removal.

We can do better, if we plan to do better. I thank Councilmember Navarro for co-sponsoring this legislation, and Councilmembers Berliner and Floreen for supporting it at committee.

A Sidewalk Snow Removal Plan

Watch the AB7 report on my plan above!

Responding to large storm events is a challenge for our county government and our residents. We have a very robust snow plow operation that clears the roads very efficiently, and our superb highway team is always working to improve its performance. However, we do not have a sufficient plan or policies in place to meet the challenge of removing snow from sidewalks and pedestrian crossings.

I have seen or heard reports of pedestrians walking in the street on major roads, mothers pushing strollers over sidewalks that have not been cleared, seniors and individuals with mobility challenges unable to enter a street crossing because it is blocked by snow, and even motorized wheelchairs moving in traffic lanes on state highways (in this case, University Blvd) because sidewalks are impassable.

We know that the county considers its snow removal work complete long before these problems have been resolved.

I am requesting Council staff to draft legislation requiring Montgomery County DOT to create a Sidewalk Snow Removal Plan.

The plan would require elements including:

  1. A digital map of the county showing who is responsible for clearing snow on all sidewalks in the county
  2. A “major storm event” communications plan addressing a range of preparation efforts that residents need to understand, and including sidewalk snow removal, to be implemented in advance of major storm events
  3. A targeted public education campaign for property owners to make them aware where they are responsible for clearing sidewalks from snow
  4. Establishing pedestrian priority routes where additional education, enforcement and county services will be applied
  5. A public education campaign to educate residents about how to request enforcement of sidewalk clearing rules, and enhanced process for residents to request enforcement by 311
  6. Policies for keeping 311 in operation late during snow events
  7. Increased enforcement for property owners who fail to clear their sidewalks
  8. Plan for county-provided snow removal at bus-stops and around Metro stations
  9. Plan for county-provided snow removal near schools
  10. Plan for county-provided snow removal along state highways
  11. Plan for county-provided snow removal along highest priority pedestrian routes
  12. Plan for snow removal in urban districts, funded by urban districts
  13. Pedestrian access requirements provided to snow removal contractors and performance assessment based on fulfilling the plan
  14. Plan for clearing hiker biker trails on a prioritized basis
  15. Plan for trash removal if snow cancels collection

I recognize that we have limited resources and storm events are already a massive expense for the county — we spend over $1 million per day during snow events, according to the county executive.

Clearing the roads is a critical mission, but ensuring that all residents have mobility after storm events is the real goal. We should not be satisfied with finishing part of the job.