Jason Haremza and Rolf Pendall on sidewalks, snow, and social justice

Clearing the Way on Sidewalks: Why keeping walks snow-free is a matter of public health and social justice | Opinion Blog – syracuse.com

I’ve always followed Rolf Pendall’s research on housing, which has implications for social justice, of course. Here his co-author and he are right: cleared sidewalks are a crucial link in the mobility network.

I got to wondering, however, about how carefully they’ve thought through their proposed solution:

So, instead of raising taxes, how about starting with this proposal: Shift a penny per gallon of the 31.9-cent-per-gallon state gas tax to support municipal (city and village) clearance of snow from public sidewalks. Then campaign in every county that has at least one city or village with sidewalks to devote at least 10 percent of the county’s sales tax on gasoline to the plowing of sidewalks in those locations.

People often suggest a penny out of the gas tax because a penny sounds very small. But a penny out of the state’s gas tax is a sizable pot of money, and then to add 10 percent of local option sales taxes on top–just for snow removal on sidewalks?

Let’s put some parameters on this: in 2007, there were 5,641,925,000 gallons of gas sold in New York [1] (not including diesel, which gets us another million gallons), which is at least that many pennies. This is $56 million dollars per year at base. The sales taxes on gasoline in New York range from 3.1 percent to 4.75 percent [2]; assuming a sale price of $2.50 per gallon, 30 percent of the take on a 3.5 percent tax would be another $148 million.

Maybe I’m figuring this wrong, as I haven’t had enough coffee yet.

However, the state operating budget, out of which snow removal comes, is $2.6 billion [3] which means that the proposal would be about 8 percent of the state’s total operating budget (where money for snow removal on state-operated transit and highways come).

They aren’t clear about what they are really proposing until later:

The funds could also be used to capitalize a low-interest revolving loan fund for sidewalk renewal and replacement. It’s inefficient and costly for property owners to do this parcel-by-parcel.

This is what they really want, given the size of the pot of money they are asking for.

The problem with sidewalk maintenance is that it’s labor intensive; snow plows for roads work because they take advantage of economies of scale in machinery. It may be inefficient for individual property owners to provide maintenance, but it’s also not terribly efficient for the city to do so because the combination of sidewalks and single-family homes is spatially disaggregated and inefficient to begin with–too much infrastructure (both roads and sidewalks) serving too few people.

To wit: there is a lot of underused capacity in the snowblower world as well (just like there is underused capacity in the riding lawnmower world). When I lived in Chicago, the one guy on the block with a snowblower cleared everybody’s sidewalk and would take, after much urging, money for fuel or baked goods. He even used to clear a little potty area for my short-legged dog to do his business. But, of course, not every community has snowblowers or angels to run them.

It would be interesting to know how other states deal with their sidewalks.

Edited to add: Professor Pendall noted that their proposal was for 10 percent of sales tax receipts, not 30 percent, which would bring the total budget allocation to $100 million–about 50 state, 50 local.


[2] Gas price information http://www.newyorkgasprices.com/Tax_Info.aspx

[3] New York state enacted budget. http://publications.budget.state.ny.us/budgetFP/2009-10EnactedBudget-FINAL.pdf

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