Winnipeg looking at innovative ways to clear roads and sidewalks

City behind the curve on snow removal


LAST fall, a one-sentence directive contained within a mandate letter from Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman to infrastructure and public works committee chairman Coun. Marty Morantz, presented a pile of opportunities larger than a Winnipeg snowbank: “Review and research innovative snow-clearing opportunities with a view to finding savings, efficiencies and improvements.”

In Winnipeg, swirling snowfalls are simply a reality of existence. Surviving them— and not allowing them to kibosh going to the Jets game or making theweekly grocery run — is a rite of passage for many Winnipeggers, for whomhardiness is next to godliness. Others choose to simply hunker down.

One group that cannot pull the blinds and pour another cup of cocoa is Winnipeg’s public works department. After flakes fly, it’s up to city employees and private subcontractors to hit the streets with heavy machines and clear snow and ice.

Compared with other cities, Canadian and otherwise— which have found novel and innovative solutions to moving the white stuff — Winnipeg’s snow clearing is behind the times.

The report regarding innovation is tardy, too. Jim Berezowsky, Winnipeg’s acting director of public works, was supposed to present a report to the standing policy committee on infrastructure renewal and public works Sept. 11.

He didn’t. Snow will likely hit Winnipeg before Berezowsky’s report lands on Morantz’s desk. Morantz said he knew Berezowsky would ask for a 90-day extension, which the councillor granted.

Plowing problems came to a head in the city last winter. In December, after Winnipeg got dumped with more than 68 centimetres of snow thanks to two Colorado lows and numerous Alberta clippers, the city proved incapable of clearing it in a timely fashion. Traffic on city streets was snarled for days and sidewalks remained snowed in for longer.

“Because we had those two massive snowfalls, it was quite a challenge,” Morantz said.

“Basically, most of the complaints that we received after the last two years were around sidewalk clearing.”

Berezowsky said when crews plow high-volume streets, they use boulevards to store snow. However, due to “lack of snow storage space,” it often piles onto sidewalks.

In Montreal, which has an annual snow-clearing budget of $155 million, crews use an innovative strategy that emulates crop harvesting.

Instead of pushing the snow onto the boulevard, a plow with a blower attachment sends the snow directly from the road into a five-ton dump truck driving in tandem. When one truck is full, it peels out and another one rolls up. There are limitations — the blower can make quickwork of loose snow, but can’t move big chunks packed down by the vehicles that venture onto snowy streets.

This strategy prevents obstructed sightlines caused by high snowbanks at intersections, eliminates the need for crews to return and remove them later, and ensures snow doesn’t pile up on sidewalks when operators run out of space.

That’s not the only innovation Montreal has undertaken. They’ve also been inspired by Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik.

There, pipes under the sidewalks carry geothermally heated water that melts the snow off of them.

The system covers 50,000 square metres, according to the National Energy Authority of Iceland. Montreal is launching a $26-million pilot project with a similar system on 670 metres of high-traffic Rue Sainte-Catherine sidewalk.

While that price tag would nearly melt through the entirety of Winnipeg’s $33.8-million snow-clearing budget, quicker sidewalk clearing would save people like St. James resident Cassandra Jones a lot of frustration.

Jones, who uses an electric wheelchair, is sometimes stranded inside her home because sidewalks aren’t clear.

“It can be a bit of a pain sometimes, because if they don’t plow them very well, it can be really hard to get around,” she said.

“Sometimes it’s days and days and days and they just don’t bother. They do downtown really well… but they don’t seem to bother with residential sidewalks as much.”

Jones said she’s thankful for her friend John Wiebe. Wiebe, who has one arm, takes his snow blower and clears a path so Jones can get to Sundayworship.

“That’s pretty bad when someone has to buy a snow blower just so I can get to church.”

In many Canadian cities, clearing the city sidewalk isn’t just neighbourly — it’s the law.

In Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina and Toronto, the onus is on the homeowner to clear walks adjacent to their properties.

Homeowners in Edmonton, for example, have 48 hours after a snowfall to clear the snow or risk a $100 fine.

Don Turenne, management supervisor of Edmonton’s parks and roads services department, said Edmontonians, generally, have no problem clearing city sidewalks.

“It’s been that way for years,” Turenne said. “... I don’t hear a lot either from the media or through complaints. We’ve been doing it for so long that citizens just treat it as one of the expectations.”

Turenne’s inklings are backed up by statistics.

Troy Courtoreille, Edmonton’s acting director of the complaints and investigations section of the community standards branch, provided specifics.

“We see a varying compliance rate that averages 77 per cent during most winters, but it can drop as low as 65 per cent or increase to about 90 per cent,” he wrote in an email, noting variables such as “fluctuating weather, educational campaigns, and enforcement targeting” affect the numbers.

“Generally, homeowners follow the bylaw, but there are known problematic neighbourhoods whose compliance rate(s) (are) lower than average.”

Winnipeg’s policy, by comparison, is opaque. It doesn’t outlinewhen work should start after a snowfall, and simply says residential sidewalks will be “completed within five working days following the commencement of work” by city crews or private contractors.

Berezowsky called requiring homeowners to clear sidewalks an “alternative” and said it doesn’t fit in within the definition of innovation.

“Innovation is not putting the responsibility back onto someone else at a cost,” he said. “That’s called service reduction.”

Novel ideas don’t end at sidewalks, of course. Many cities use a strategy called “pre-wetting” to help chemicals stick to roads and reduce the amount used. A study on the effectiveness of pre-wetting, done by members of the department of civil engineering at the University of Waterloo, found pre-wet salt outperformed dry salt by between 14 and 38 per cent in 2002-03.

In Ottawa, a liquid de-icer is applied to rock salt to help it bind better to the road. Salt usage has been reduced by one-fifth as a result.

Starting this winter, Edmonton will undertake a similar policy. Crews will spray roads with a brine solution before snowfalls to prevent it from sticking. The hope — although this remains to be seen — is that pre-wetting can prevent the need to plow in some cases, potentially saving the city from spending the entirety of its $54-million budget.

Other jurisdictions have cut down on salt use by using unconventional alternatives, including beet juice (which Winnipeg has been experimenting with for a fewyears), cheese brine and molasses.

While Winnipeg’s report on the future of snow clearing is delayed, it’s not moving quite as slow as molasses — Morantz and Berezowsky have been looking at many newpossibilities.

Morantz wouldn’t speculate on the final contents of the report, but talked about some approaches that caught his eye. Specifically, he described a plow with a “snowgate” attachment— one that plows the road and clears windrows in one fell swoop — as having piqued his interest.

Berezowsky also outlined several potential measures, including tools inside equipment that sense the exact temperatures of roadways, entirely chloride-free ice-melting methods and expanding the city’s limited pre-wetting program.

While improvementsmay eventually come, Winnipeggers will keep having to take perverse pride in navigating snow-plugged streets and sidewalks. It may take until 2019 before any of the report’s recommendations are implemented, as it will come too late to factor into the city’s 2018 budget talks.

“If there’s additional budgetary requirements, by that time, most of the planning for the 2018 budget will be complete,” Morantz said.

“It’s quite possible we’d have to refer to the ’19 budget, which will not be considered until later next year.”

Berezowsky warned implementation can be slow.

“Industry would never go ahead and fully implement something without a policy change requirement by the city— which would have to be proposed and passed through council.”

Declan Schroeder is a senior journalism student in the creative communications program at Red River College in Winnipeg. This article was a product of a featurewriting assignment.