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Often-neglected sidewalks get priority in some towns

Sunday News Correspondent

February 23. 2013 10:29PM
Manchester Highway Dept sidewalk plow clears snow at City Hall during a storm in this undated file photo. (UNION LEADER FILE)

MILFORD - While every town in New Hampshire works to keep roads clear during storms, some towns carry the extra burden of making sidewalks passable for pedestrians and so invest in the labor and machinery to get the job done.

"We have around 11 miles of sidewalk in Milford," said Rick Riendeau, head of the Milford Department of Public Works. "People will speak out when sidewalks are not maintained in the wintertime, especially sidewalks to the schools. We have to be on top of this. If not, people walk in the road, and that's a safety issue."

To clear snow off the sidewalks in Milford, DPW employees use snow blowers, leaf blowers and, of course, good old-fashion shovels. The town also has two sidewalk tractor plows, which cost about $120,000 each and are designed to accommodate the town's unusual four-foot wide sidewalks, said Riendeau. The standard width for a sidewalk is five feet, he said, and finding machinery that will fit the smaller dimensions is tricky.

"Another issue with our sidewalks is that they are right against the curb and roadway," said Riendeau. "This is difficult to maintain in the winter because there is no room to store snow between the road and sidewalk."

Mountains of snow build up in the Oval during a big storm. It has to be hauled away to the town's snow dump pit when the immediate rush for clearing roads abates.

"Keeping the sidewalks open and clear is a very important part of our winter operations," said Manchester Public Works Director Kevin Sheppard. "The difficult part is that it does not make sense to begin clearing sidewalks until the roads have been completed, for the street plows are pushing the snow into the sidewalk area. Knowing this, it can take us up to a week to open all city sidewalks upon the completion of some storms."

Manchester uses a variety of methods for clearing its sidewalks depending on the depth and type of snow. From snow blowers made specifically for sidewalks to "V" plows, the priority begins with the school walking routes and the downtown areas.

"We budget close to $1.2 million per year for winter operations," said Sheppard. "This number is all inclusive of all operations, which includes sidewalk clearing."

Prioritizing sidewalk clearing is difficult but necessary, said Dean Shankle, town administrator for Hooksett.

"In some areas of town, it is considered a very high priority; less so in other areas," he said.

Shankle estimates that it costs about $300 to clear the town's sidewalks after a storm, or 16 hours in wages for one person using the town's sidewalk plow - an expensive piece of equipment that only has a few year's left in it, Shankle said.

In Amherst, sidewalk maintenance around the village is done with an $80,000 "trackless" machine that's a combination plow-sander-snow blower, said DPW director Bruce Berry. The machine was purchased in 2001, he said, and turned a labor-intensive task done previously with a snow blower into a job that takes about an hour and a half after each storm.

Berry said sidewalk maintenance is important in the village because there are two elementary schools in town, as well as a private kindergarten, Moulton's Market and the public library, but the condition of sidewalks in the village isn't good.

"The biggest challenge I have is sidewalk condition. This time of year, we treat, the sun warms and thaws ice, sand then falls to the bottom of the puddle and it refreezes," said Berry.

The sidewalk condition takes its toll on the trackless machine, said Berry, which is due to be replaced. But operating on a default budget has prevented the town from investing in new equipment, so for the time being, he said, the department will have to make-do.

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