Clearing the roads, sidewalks and shared use paths of snow and ice continues to be an ongoing challenge for the City of Edmonton. Despite repeated, lengthy, frequent conversations, we still have not landed on a set of policies and procedures that will satisfy most of the people most of the time.
We should remember that all those conversations have resulted in a constantly changing set of policies and processes that has left our Administration with a constantly moving target. Our front-line crews are doing the best they can with what they have been given, but the goal posts keep moving on them.
So with that in mind, I am reluctant to say the following, but: It’s time to start from scratch and develop a new snow and ice strategy.
In developing a new strategy, I think we need to start with these questions.
What is our goal?
This might sound obvious, but we need to agree on what our ultimate goal is. Is the standard to provide traction? Or is the standard to provide bare pavement? What should our standard be? For sidewalks? For shared use trails? Residential streets vs collectors and arterials?
What is our approach to freezing rain?
Rain at the beginning of December turned our streets into curling rinks. Rain on January 17 closed 23rd avenue for 5 hours. How do we provide traction after freezing rain? Freezing rain will be a more frequent occurrence, and we don’t have a long freezing rain history to draw on.
What materials are we going to use?
We used to use a lot of sand, with a mix of salt to help that sand become embedded in a packed snow layer. We didn’t do that over the December deep freeze. Why? Because we are trying to limit spring cleanup? Because it makes a brown slush that is ugly in Spring?
Should we reconsider using calcium chloride?
Calcium chloride requires repeated cycles of spraying and plowing on an 8 hour cycle. Edmonton can’t - or won’t - plow the roads on that kind of schedule. Our approach seems to be to do nothing until the snow stops. Without that frequent plowing cycle, a single application of calcium chloride turns to black ice and makes things worse.
When is the right time to plow residential streets?
The current set of policies regarding residential snow clearing include clearing the roads down to a packed thickness of 4 in. As a pilot project, crews are currently scraping down to bare pavement. More snow is being plowed, resulting in larger windrows than would otherwise accumulate. And the freezing rain has now turned those windrows into glaciers.
Once crews have completed clearing a road in a residential neighbourhood, specialized equipment removes windrows that are blocking driveways, crosswalks and access to mailboxes. This equipment follows behind the graders, but not always immediately.
The current set of policies also include the following:
- Windrows less than 30 cm in height left behind blocking driveways will be the responsibility of the adjacent property owner;
- Windrows are NOT removed to provide access to front walks - only driveway accesses are cleared;
- Windrows will not be removed, but will be left to melt;
- Snow piles that are left in cul-de-sac areas after clearing will be picked up by crews within two weeks:
- Windrows are not removed by request or demand.
When is the right time to plow residential roads? That freezing rain in December led to a lot of demands for treatment of residential streets. And those demands went away with subsequent snowfalls. Are we still reacting to those December demands in mid-January? Or are we plowing now to avoid a mess during the spring melt in March - April? If this is the case, why don’t we wait until March to create all those windrows?
We are told that it will take 4-6 weeks to plow all the residential roads, so we are either still responding to the December event or anticipating the March event. Either way, the next question needs to be…
What should we do with windrows?
In many cases, you now have a windrow that covers most or all of the City-owned sidewalk in front of your house. You don’t want a ticket for that walk not being cleared. If you use a walker or a wheelchair, you cannot use the sidewalk. If you require home care, it is difficult for those providing that care to park near your home. And the road in front of your home is now much narrower. And we still see massive windrows on our arterial roads.
Should we adopt a policy of removing windrows immediately? Council received a report in mid-2021 that put the cost of complete removal at an additional $205M annually - equivalent to a 12% property tax increase. I struggle to justify spending this kind of money to pick up snow and watch it melt.
How do we respond more quickly to rain and snow events? And how do we shorten the amount of time it takes to respond?
Why does Edmonton wait for the snow to stop falling before beginning to plow the streets? Why don’t we get out there when the snow starts, and plow ( and keep plowing) until the snow ends? This approach alone speaks against using calcium chloride.
Why does it take so long to get to all the residential roads? Are we overly dependent on contractors? Do we need more plows, more drivers? We have fewer trucks on the road than we did 5 years ago. Why? Where did those trucks, and truck driving positions go? To management?
Do we have a budget problem, or a management problem?
Before we know if we have a budget problem, we need answers to all of the questions above. We need to know what our ideal response will be, in each circumstance, for each category of road, pathway and sidewalk. We need to determine what material and equipment is needed to meet that level of service. We need to know if additional or different equipment is required, and if so, what the cost is to purchase and operate that equipment. We need to determine how much of that equipment and how many operators are City employees, and how many are contracted. What is the balance? From there we will know what our budget should be.
Our snow clearing budget is largely unchanged for the last 15 years, and our City is much bigger than it was 15 years ago. Maybe it's time to increase the snow budget.
But before we increase taxes to increase the snow budget, we need answers. We need to know if budgets can be reduced in other areas, to increase the snow budget without increasing taxes. We need to know what the level of service will be, without increasing taxes.
And then we need to tell you, the taxpayer, what your choices are. So that you can tell us, your representatives, what you want to see. Because this current cycle of tweaking this or adjusting that, and waiting for the emails and phone calls to come in, is not sustainable.
As always, your input and feedback is greatly appreciated. Please email me at [email protected], or call at 780-496-8130.
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