Photo by randomduck on Flickr.

8 DC councilmembers tabled a bill this afternoon to enforce DC’s law requiring shoveling sidewalks. This means that, for the umpteenth time, DC is doing nothing about the serious safety problem of unshoveled sidewalks after a snowstorm.

Only bill authors Mary Cheh (ward 3) and Tommy Wells (ward 6), joined by David Catania (at-large) and Chairman Kwame Brown, voted against tabling the bill. Phil Mendelson (at-large) sounded like he favored the bill during the debate, but supported the tabling.

Listening to the debate, it was clear that many councilmembers just don’t think there is a problem. Marion Barry (ward 8) said he has gotten few or no complaints about unshoveled sidewalks. Muriel Bowser (ward 4) spoke passionately multiple times about the burden on anyone for getting a ticket but said nothing about her residents’ ability to walk to stores and the Metro.

Jim Graham also argued against enforcing this law, even though, as Mike DeBonis noted, he represents the (residentially) densest ward in DC. He introduced an amendment that would have restricted fines to only apply on streets which have already been plowed. One of the bill’s supporters called the amendment a “poison pill.” That sends the ironic message that if drivers can’t get through a street, it’s not important that pedestrians be able to either.

Kwame Brown, who did support the bill but also supported Graham’s amendment, made the amusing comment that Mayor Gray has done a good job with snow clearance this year. We’ve had only 1.7” of snow  this year, compared to an annual average average through January of 8.4” and the lowest in 124 years.

Graham insisted that he wants to do something about shoveling; he just wants to use incentives rather than fines. But he’s never given a practical incentive-based proposal.

Many councilmembers opining on this issue would have more credibility if they actually walked to transit to get to work in a snow, or for that matter any other time.

During the years he chaired the council’s transportation committee and sat on the WMATA Board, Graham came under periodic criticism for very rarely riding transit. He stuck up for low bus fares, but never addressed the problem of unsafe sidewalks after storm. Graham even bragged during today’s debate about not moving bills like this one during his tenure as chairman.

Large numbers of DC residents have to get to work or school on foot and on transit after snowstorms, and unshoveled areas create serious safety hazards. Sidewalks are often completely impassable for people with disabilities or even just temporary injuries.

DC already has a law that residents and businesses have to clear their sidewalks, but it’s not enforceable. The government has clear the sidewalk and then sue individual violators to collect up to $25. This bill simply makes the penalty for violating this law a straightforward ticket and fine, just like in most cities including Arlington, Alexandria and Montgomery County.

Cheh made many changes to the bill during the last few months to cut the fines even further from the original proposal, put in exemptions for poor and elderly residents, and more. Property owners get a warning before having to pay any fine until the end of 2013.

It’s not clear if this law does enough to push the egregious violators, like the large parking lot in Mount Vernon Triangle, to actually take any action, but a majority of councilmembers have made clear that they don’t really care to do anything about those problems.

The bill wouldn’t have even taken effect until next winter. Now, we’re likely to have to wait until yet another winter. If we get a real snow this year, will the councilmembers who voted to table this bill today try walking their neighborhoods and getting to work on foot or by transit? If they did, they’d very likely look at this issue very differently.