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Never too soon to prepare for winter, Duluth installs snow emergency signs

The new signs mean residents will need to follow parking rules to speed the city's snow-removal efforts.

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NTTK Inc foreman Ben Blonigen (right) secures the base of a snow emergency route sign post to its base as coworker Evan Kremin documents its location on Hutchinson Road near the Piedmont Trailhead on Monday, May 17, 2021. The city is installing nearly 2,300 snow emergency route signs alongs 120 of city roads. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

It may seem odd to be thinking about snow in mid-May, but the city of Duluth is preparing.

For the past several weeks, crews have been posting snow emergency signs β€” about 2,300 of them β€” to mark out roughly 120 miles of designated snow emergency routes.

Once installed, the signs will provide Jim Benning with an opportunity to do something he has never dared to do in his nearly 15-year career as director of Duluth's public works and utilities department: Declare a snow emergency.

The city's ability to call a snow emergency has been on the books for many years, but Benning explained that the city's snow emergency routes were not well marked.

"I believe we've found a few faded snow emergency signs β€” maybe a dozen or so scattered throughout the city β€” but certainly not enough to declare a snow emergency and have people fully understand where they can and can't park," he said.

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An old snow emergency sign sits on a post along Second Street near 15th Avenue East in late 2019. At the time no staff could recall the city ever calling a snow emergency, and many would-be snow emergency routes were not marked. The city is now installing nearly 2,300 snow emergency route signs along 120 miles of road. (Steve Kuchera / file / News Tribune)

"So, with the installation of these signs, it's going to be very clear what routes are for snow emergencies, and we plan to have a public education piece as we get a little closer to snow season on what the expectations are for residents," Benning said.

The city plans a city-wide mailing, but Benning acknowledged: "There will be a bit of a learning curve the first time one of these is declared."

Snow emergencies will be declared no later than 4 p.m. Parked vehicles on designated routes must be moved before 9 p.m. Then from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., parking enforcement will begin.

Benning doesn't anticipate the city will tow a bunch of vehicles when it first declares a snow emergency, more likely issuing tickets and warnings to begin, then proceeding to tow more vehicles, as necessary, when future snow emergencies unfold.

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Jim Benning, director of public works and utilities, speaks about Duluth’s snow emergency routes Monday, May 17, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

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Mark Bauer, Duluth's parking operations specialist, said, "Our intention is to tow as few cars as possible, and we're hoping that our education efforts … are enough to mitigate the need to tow vehicles, as much as possible."

He advises people to plan ahead.

"Think about what you're going to do. Start thinking about it now. What is your plan for when snow emergencies come, and talk about it in your household," Bauer said.

Benning predicts clearing streets of vehicles should make a big difference and said: "More efficiency equates to how quickly we can move off of those snow emergency routes and get to the residential streets."

"It gives street maintenance operators the opportunity to plow unimpeded. They're not weaving in and out of traffic, around parked cars. But once a snow emergency is declared, the real burden, as far as city staff goes, is placed on parking enforcement," he said.

Plowing of snow emergency routes will begin in earnest at 2 a.m., with parking restrictions remaining in effect until 6 p.m., unless Benning extends or terminates the emergency.

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One of nearly 2,300 snow emergency route signs Duluth is installing along 120 of city roads. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

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Benning said he expects to declare a snow emergency probably at least once per winter and perhaps more often, depending on the severity of the weather that year.

The city of Duluth originally had planned to install snow emergency signs last year, but the work was placed on hold as the city stared down emerging budget shortfalls related to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, cost estimates for the project hovered around $500,000.

But Benning said the city has since been able to attain some favorable pricing. It paid about $200,000 for signs, posts and hardware The city also has hired a contractor to install them for about $115,000, bring the price of the project to around $315,000. According to the terms of a contract, the work must be completed by September, but Benning said that if work continues at the current pace, the signs could all be in place by mid-July.

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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