Snow. Every winter brings it and everyone has to trudge through it.
For Toronto city officials, the season brings the same daunting challenge: how to keep roads and sidewalks clear of snow and ice for 2.7 million residents — drivers and pedestrians — while contending with a range of variables as unpredictable as the weather itself.
“It is a major logistical challenge to make sure that everyone across the city, which is 600 square kilometres, gets services on an equal basis,” noted Coun. James Pasternak (Ward 6 York Centre), chair of city council’s infrastructure and environment committee.
That’s 600 square kilometres containing 5,605 kilometres of road. This includes 133 kilometres of expressways like the Gardiner, 1,096 kilometres of main roads (known as arterials), 889 kilometres of collector roads, 3,165 kilometres of local roads and 322 kilometres of laneways, according to city figures.
Add in sidewalks — another 7,945 kilometres — and the challenge gets even more complicated.
Snow clearing across the city is a service that doesn’t come cheap and isn’t getting any cheaper. Since 2001, the winter maintenance budget has more than doubled, rising to $87.5 million in 2019 from $40.2 million in 2001.
Vincent Sferrazza, director of operations and maintenance for transportation services, said the increase has been driven by a range of factors, including the increasing cost of contracted services, investments in new technology such as road sensors that measure temperature, better equipment, increasing demands for services and a rapidly growing city.
“The city’s road and sidewalk network has grown over the years, and with it, there’s been a need to expand services. Existing services have also been enhanced and improved over the years,” Sferrazza said.
A 2019 Ipsos poll of 1,000 residents commissioned by the city found that 57 per cent were satisfied with the city’s winter maintenance services. In the same survey, 70 per cent reported they believed those services have stayed the same or improved in the previous five years. Customer satisfaction dropped five per cent from the previous survey in 2013.
“It is an enormous task to keep our roads and sidewalks clear. It’s a major, major operation. There is work to do on the customer service side, there is room for improvement. But at the same time, we feel that… we’re able to stay on top of our major weather events,” Pasternak said.
Pasternak, one of council’s fiscal hawks, sees the high price tag as a “good investment” for a city that Ryerson’s Centre for Urban Research and Land Development declared in 2019 to be the fastest growing in Canada and the U.S.
“This is an important city service that protects pedestrians from slipping and falling… it allows for personal vehicles to go from A to B in the safest way possible and it allows commerce to flow. That’s really where our dividend is. If we can keep our sidewalks and our roads clear, we’ll save money,” he said.
Coun. Anthony Perruzza (Ward 7 Humber River-Black Creek), who sits on the same committee that Pasternak chairs and whose North York ward abuts the chair’s, is far more skeptical about the level of satisfaction among residents.
“I’m not sure who they (Ipsos) are talking to. All I know is that as soon as we get a snow event, we get lots of calls from people who are irate,” Perruzza said.
“I’m not sure that my ward is any different than anywhere else in the city. The service is quite poor actually, and we get a lot of complaints from folks, especially from people who don’t have the capacity to pick up a shovel and go out and clear the snow themselves,” he added.
Sferrazza said Toronto residents rightfully expect good snow-clearing service.
That involves about 1,500 workers — 300 city staff and 1,200 contractor staff — and 1,102 vehicles, including 571 road plows and driveway machines, 329 sidewalk plows and 202 salt trucks. Contractors are paid to be on call 24 hours. Their rates go up substantially once they’re actually deployed.
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“What people may not see is behind the scenes how complicated it is. But that’s OK. That’s what we’re here for,” Sferrazza said.
Dominic Guthrie, program manager of emergency and winter operations, said the number of variables city staff have to consider when a storm — or “snow event” — hits include the amount of precipitation (snow and/or rain), the snowfall rate — e.g. 5 centimetres an hour versus 5 centimetres over eight hours — and temperature.
Applying salt, for example, is most effective between 0 to -10 degrees (Celsius). Below that, its efficacy falls sharply, he noted.
Timing is everything. A storm during a Monday rush hour is much more complicated to deal with than one that blows through on a weekend when traffic volumes are lower, Guthrie said.
And while Toronto averages about 110 to 130 centimetres annually, it can vary widely, from 50.6 centimetres in 2006 to 245.6 centimetres in 2008, according to a city report.
Sferrazza noted the city’s standards for when snow-clearing begins exceed the minimum standards set by the province, with plows deployed when snow hits 2.5 centimetres on expressways, five centimetres on main roads and eight centimetres on secondary roads.
For sidewalks with high pedestrian traffic and bus routes, snow-clearing begins at two centimetres in the main season between Dec. 1 and March 30. It’s eight centimetres outside the main winter season, what city officials colloquially refer to as the “shoulder seasons” of October and November and after April 1, when storms are rare but far from unheard of.
It’s during the “shoulder seasons,” Perruzza noted, that city officials find themselves in a jam, forced to rely on contractors to provide service on an ad hoc basis and adding huge, unanticipated costs to the budget.
Salt usage is a critical component of keeping roads and sidewalks safe. In fact, salting happens more often than plowing and salting in advance of a storm prevents snow from bonding to pavement, making it easier for plows to remove later, Guthrie said.
Salt brine (water with salt at a 23 per cent concentration) is used on bridges and hills and the Gardiner Expressway to reduce slippery conditions.
The city uses about 10,220 tonnes of salt in each storm or about 128,000 tonnes annually (based on a five-year average), a 10 to 15 per cent reduction since Toronto set up a salt management plan in 2002.
The city’s website says it takes about 13 hours to clear sidewalks after a snowfall, but cautions sidewalks may have to be cleared more than once depending on the amount of snow. It urges residents to call 311 if their sidewalk has not been cleared within 72 hours after a snowfall has ended.