How To Clear Sidewalks

Pay city workers to do it.
Post-Standard Letter (published March 5, 2015).

March 5, 2015

To the Editor:

I don't think issuing fines for unplowed sidewalks is the right solution for Syracuse. When only a small minority are at fault, it may arguably be appropriate. But, as far as I can see, a majority of residents are at fault. And since the burden is universal to all residents, I think an institutional approach would be the most effective and cost-efficient solution.

I suggest the city add sidewalk plowing to its services. Here is a back-of-the-envelope calculation of how it could work. There are 436 miles of road in Syracuse. Not all roads have sidewalks. Given a sidewalk on both sides, there may be 800 or so miles of sidewalks to plow. Tractor plows/blowers designed for sidewalk plowing cost $10,000-$15,000 each. Moving at an average speed of 2 miles/hr (slow), it would take 400 hours to plow all sidewalks. Let's assume workers are paid $20/hr including benefits (municipal employees). Assuming 8 hour shifts, it would require 50 workers and 25-50 plows for each plowing. Now, if plowing is done only for accumulations of 3 inches or more, and assuming 15 snowfalls per year above 3 inches, there will be 15 plowings to pay for. We can optionally be more generous on plowing.

So, there will be an initial investment of up to $750,000 for 50 plows (perhaps $800,000 including spares, parts, maintenance training). Each plowing will cost $8,000 (400 hrs x $20/hr). 15 plowings per year would cost $120,000. To comfortably include overhead (supervision, depreciation, maintenance, fuel, etc.), figure a grand total of $250,000/yr.

Now, lets estimate the current cost of plowing to residents (in cash or labor). There are around 45,000 premises in Syracuse. Including large commercial properties, I estimate a cost of $10 per premise per shoveling/plowing (whether you pay someone, or your equivalent labor, and the operating cost of your plow if you own one). That works out to $450,000 per plowing for all residents combined, or $6.75 million (15 plowings) per year for all residents. Not convinced? Feel free to cut that estimate in half.

Why such a discrepancy in cost? Because tractor plowing is far more efficient than hand shoveling. Assuming 45,000 premises, it would take on average 1/2 minute to clear the sidewalk of one premise. In addition, one institutional public service operating at cost is far more efficient than negotiating and contracting with many contractors, or their cost of dealing with each customer, and their profit. I think it's important---and most efficient---that the plow workforce be city employees; it may allow the city to retain more permanent workers by having them do different tasks in different seasons rather than contracting out for them separately each season. And the workers will enjoy better paying, permanent, and secure jobs.

How do we pay for city plowing? An average utility fee of $7-$10 per premise per year would cover all costs. That's less than a 10th of what it costs us now. So it's a huge savings, not an additional cost. And what a convenience!

Carlo Moneti
Syracuse, NY