Duluth tickets, tows vehicles in first snow emergency

Some vehicles were already so badly plowed in that towing was not an option.

A car left parked along North Central Avenue in West Duluth, one of the city’s new snow emergency routes, sits behind a snow berm Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021, the second day of the city’s snow emergency. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

A number of motorists learned the hard way that Duluth means business when it comes to enforcing parking regulations on its 120 miles of designated snow emergency routes.

The city declared its first snow emergency in decades Tuesday, and as of noon Wednesday, it had ticketed 150 vehicles illegally parked on roads that were to have been cleared by 9 p.m. the previous day. The transgression cost drivers $48 a pop. And about one-third of those vehicle owners will need to shell out an additional $128 to reclaim their ride after it was towed away. That's a $176 lesson. Ouch.

A parking ticket sits in the door of a vehicle parked on North 59th Avenue West, one of Duluth’s snow emergency routes, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

But Kate Van Daele, a Duluth public information officer, still generally gives drivers high marks for heeding the city's first snow emergency in recent memory.


"Our goal was not to ticket and tow. Our goal was to have compliance. And for the most part, we've been really happy with the compliance we've seen — the way people have stayed off a lot of the snow emergency routes for the time frame that we've asked them to," she said.

City crews continued to work around some abandoned vehicles that had already been plowed into place following previous snowfalls. Van Daele noted some vehicle owners likely remained out of town due to the holidays. In certain cases, freeing the illegally parked vehicles to tow them away would have required significant work, and so, the decision was made to temporarily leave them be.

"It definitely is a production to get them out of the banks," Van Daele said. But she stressed vehicle owners still bear responsibility for digging them out and moving them, as required. Van Daele said neighbors are often willing to lend a hand.

A grader works on Cody Street, one of Duluth’s snow emergency routes, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Duluth has long had the authority to implement snow emergencies, as evidenced by its decision to declare one in the aftermath of the 1991 Halloween blizzard. But in recent years, the city has refrained from flexing those muscles, especially as many of the designated snow emergency routes lacked signs to inform motorists that they were parked on specially regulated streets.

This past year, Duluth invested roughly $500,000 to install about 2,000 snow emergency signs .


Duluth installed nearly 2,300 snow emergency route signs along 120 miles of city roads this year. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

That investment was fueled in part by public frustration with the city's difficulty clearing streets following back-to-back heavy snowfall during the 2019 Thanksgiving weekend . Duluth initially planned to install new signs in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the then-cash-strapped city to postpone the expenditure.

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"We understand that for a city of the first class in Minnesota, we're a little late to the game," Van Daele said. "But I think we feel this first outing was for sure a success, with limited number of tickets we had to issue and the relatively small number of tows that were required,"

Duluth sent about 41,000 brochures to households to bring residents up to speed on the snow emergency protocol that it intended to implement this winter. But Van Daele said those outreach efforts will be intensified in neighborhoods where the response was not as good, noting some spotty compliance Lincoln Park and Duluth's medical district.

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Duluth set aside free off-street parking for vehicles displaced by the snow emergency at city lots across the city, including Canal Park, Wade Stadium and Wheeler Athletic Complex. Van Daele said the city would like to expand those parking options and is working on a potential agreement with the University of Minnesota Duluth to share some of its capacity.

She said the city also is eager to collaborate with other organizations, including businesses and churches, that might be willing to collaborate and provide additional parking options during snow emergencies. To Van Daele's knowledge, she believes Duluth is the only city in the state to offer free off-street parking options during snow emergencies.


A grader works by cars parked on a section of West Eighth Street that is not a snow emergency route Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

When key city streets are freed of parked vehicles, plows can quickly clear them of snow from curb to curb. This not only allows for more efficient snow-removal efforts but also improved public safety, according to Van Daele.

She described snow-choked streets as "a huge problem" for emergency responders in winter.

"Not only can a fire truck not get through, but in some cases an ambulance can't get through either. So, if there's a house fire — as we see a higher rate of structure fires from December to February — that really can be problematic when firefighters or first responders can't reach you," Van Daele said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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