Opinion Columns & Blogs

Why can’t the City of Raleigh pick up the leaves?

Raleigh is such an impressive and well-run city that it has made Amazon’s top 20 list for its second headquarters. So why is it taking so long for the City of Raleigh to pick up last autumn’s leaves?

The city typically vacuums all leaves from neighborhood curb sides by February. But this year, across the city leaves remain in damp, moldering piles on the edge of streets, blocking vehicles and pedestrians and clogging drains.

If you live in a broad swath across leafy North Raleigh, get used to it. Pickup in northeast Raleigh, the last area to be vacuumed, is not scheduled until March 19 – the day before the first day of spring – and will likely take a week or two to complete.

“There definitely are a lot of concerns about it,” Stef Mendell, who represents some inside the Beltline neighborhoods and northwest Raleigh on the City Council, told me. “In driving around the city, we clearly have a problem.”

Truck repairs

Raleigh residents can push leaves into a trash can, clear plastic bag or biodegradable paper bag, and city workers will pick them up every week, year round.

But in the fall, most residents of the City of Oaks put their leaves in piles at the curb. The city vacuums up the leaves into large trucks which make their way around the city twice, starting in early November. You can see the updated pick-up schedule at raleighnc.gov.

So why won’t the city finish collecting leaves from fall 2017 until spring 2018? “A combination of two weather events, a week of sub-freezing temperatures and a multitude of equipment failures that are primarily due to the age of the equipment,” said Chris McGee, assistant city transportation director.

Cold, damp leaves are difficult to vacuum. And the city crew that collects leaves also prepares and clears city roads for snow and ice. Two days of snow can tie up a city crew for four to five days. The city has 21 trucks but many of them are aged and have been sidelined for repairs.

As the city trucks work their way around town, residents are complaining to their City Council members. Sunday night, with the Super Bowl broadcast in the background, at-large council member Russ Stephenson joined some former council members at the Players’ Retreat restaurant on Oberlin Road. One of the former council members asked Stephenson: “When are you going to pick up the leaves?”

Mendell raised the leaf issue at a recent council meeting, and has asked staff for a report on how much the city spends on leaf collection ($1 million to $1.2 million a year to pick up loose leaves) and for other options to handle leaf collection.

The city used to vacuum leaves three times a season. But it cut back to twice a season in the early 2000s to save money. One option would be for the council to return to picking up leaves three times next season.

No consensus

That still means leaves would be piled on city streets for weeks at a time. Residents aren’t supposed to pile their leaves in the street; there’s a city ordinance against doing so. Leaves are supposed to be at the edge of the yard between the curb and the sidewalk.

But most residents pile their leaves in the streets. That can clog drains and lead to flooding.

The piles also narrow the available roadway, giving motorists and cyclists less room to maneuver. For neighborhoods without sidewalks (that in itself was a bad policy decision, but that’s a subject for another column), a parent or grandparent wheeling a baby stroller on a narrow city street has to avoid piles of leaves and the SUV barreling toward them. The piles of leaves can’t be good for emergency vehicles either.

Mendell shares my concerns about the safety and environmental issues of piling leaves in the street. “Everyone seems to be very concerned but there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on what to do,” she said. She’s waiting for the staff report, which the council should see in late February or early March. I’ll write about possible solutions then.

Drescher, opinion/solutions editor, is at jdrescher@newsobserver.com; 919.829.4515; @john_drescher.