Most homes in Lake Highlands were built for alley pickup. Sanitation Director Clifton Gillepie presented a plan to implement curbside pickup instead.

Dallas Sanitation Director Clifton Gillespie briefed the city council Tuesday on his proposal to phase out alley pickup in favor of curbside collection. He doesn’t need council approval, he explained, but wanted to share his reasoning and get their “feedback and guidance” before moving ahead.

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Gillespie opened his presentation with a collection of videos showing sanitation truck drivers plowing into hazards along their alley routes. Decorative boulders, chain link fences, downed rolling carts, gas meters and other obstructions were no match for the 25-ton trash trucks, which smashed through items along their path. In one video snippet, an entire truck was destroyed when it snagged a live power line and caught fire. (All three employees on board escaped safely.) The city pays out $580,000 per year in damage claims, he said.

Gillespie did not explain what will keep those same drivers from doing damage to vehicles parked along residential streets when they climb into larger trucks and shift to curbside collection.

Only 38% of Dallas customers, or 98,000 locations, currently utilize alley pickup — mostly in areas developed over the last 50 years and at homes built specifically with alley pickup in mind. Alley trucks are smaller and less expensive to purchase, but they make more trips and require two workers in addition to the driver. The city spends $10 million per year hiring temporary labor to fill those jobs. Three-person teams on rear-loading trucks were once standard in the sanitation industry, but that method is now considered outdated. Curbside is cheaper and more efficient overall, Gillespie said.

Gillespie couldn’t promise a rate savings for customers once changes were made, explaining the biggest reason for the shift was safety. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts garbage collection as one of the country’s most dangerous jobs.

“Crews face daily risks from extreme weather, overhead utility lines, utility poles, gas meters and unpredictable alley conditions, including ruts and other obstructions,” he said. “These conditions have also caused fires resulting in total losses of trucks, injuries to personnel and near misses for electrocution.”

Gillespie also emphasized the “reliability and sustainability” of his plan.

“Service by automated truck tends to be more reliable and punctual. Unlike alleyway service, which requires a driver and two laborers, the automated nature of curbside collection is less dependent on workforce availability. This aspect is particularly advantageous during extreme weather conditions, ensuring consistent service when it’s most challenging for laborers to work.”

Most major cities in Texas, including Austin, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio, pickup up more than 90% of solid waste at the curb.

Gillespie’s proposal involves incremental change, with the most problematic alleys losing service first. Alleys which don’t meet the city’s Alley Service Criteria, including 10 foot wide pavement and 15 foot wide right-of-way, will be among the first to go. Other dangers which will switch neighbors to the “curb collection” list include encroaching vegetation, telephone poles, fencing, power lines, gas meters and utility boxes. As rear-loading trucks age out of the fleet, they would be replaced by automated trucks and more homes would be shifted to curbside pickup.

Council members were sympathetic to Gillespie’s argument and anxious to save a dollar, but they peppered him with questions they’d received from anxious (and angry) constituents.

“Some people don’t have a front driveway,” said Gay Donnell Willis, representing Preston Hollow. “That means they’d be dragging not just one bin — because we want them to recycle, too — but two bins through their yard. That’s not easy. What are we proposing that they do?”

Gillespie explained the Helping Hands program, which arranges for city personnel to come out each week and roll the bin to the curb for those who qualify as unable to do so. A similar Pack-Out program is available for those willing to pay a monthly fee.

“When we talk about the volume (of people) we would be shifting over, coupled with our shifting demographic — over 65 is our fast-growing demographic — that just seems like we would be having more and more Helping Hands needs, which is time-consuming,” said Willis. “Are we not saving time in the alley but adding time at the street?”

Time shifting may not be the only issue with Helping Hands. After Advocate published our first two stories about the trash collection issue, we received comments and messages from readers whose personal reviews of the program were less than enthusiastic.

“Helping Hands pickup for the disabled is a joke,” said longtime Lake Highlands resident Karen Caldwell. “I signed up during a shoulder replacement; it worked maybe once, I was missed a few times, ended up waiting for the sound of the truck & chasing it on foot when they inevitably missed me. The crews simply can’t keep up with who’s on it.”

“Is there something I can tell my parents, or is it just a ‘tough luck, figure it out’ type of thing,” asked Jaime Resendez, representing District 5, who said his own mom and dad would have difficulty getting their full rolling carts out to the curb. Gillespie referred him to Helping Hands.

Lake Highlands representative Kathy Stewart expressed frustration that Gillespie and his staff did not seek her input before eliminating alley service to several blocks in the L Streets in May. She’s scheduled an alley walkabout Saturday morning with sanitation staff and neighbors.

“This is a big change…and it is going to impact our neighbors,” she said. “I’m looking for a different communication between my office and the sanitation department. I really do want to partner with you on this. I want to do some of the messaging, if possible, and I want to meet with these residents so we can begin to identify where this is going to start in the district so we can identify some of our older neighbors so I can work with them…and get them the help that they need.”

Gillespie said his department plans to develop and adopt revised Alley Service Criteria by January of 2025 and begin the incremental transition by January of 2026.