Oh city, why have you forsaken us?
From late December until early January, Winnipeg experienced road conditions that were among the worst anyone had ever seen.
Heavy snow, intense cold and severe winds combined to replace paved streets with undulating rivers of uneven, densely packed, deeply rutted snowpack. The result was chaos.
Drivers were unable to control their vehicles as they slipped in and out of the frozen ruts. Manitoba Public Insurance received more than 21,000 claims in December, the worst month in the last 15 years.
How did things become so bad?
City officials claimed a perfect storm of heavy snow, rapid temperature drop and sustained cold had resulted in ruts that were so bonded to the pavement, they could not be removed. Given weather conditions (this was the sixth coldest December ever), that seemed like a plausible explanation — except almost no one bought it.
Public opinion quickly galvanized around the idea delays in clearing streets motivated by a desire to hold down overall snow-clearing costs had led to the dangerous road conditions. Again, the city denied this was the case, but angry citizens needed only to look out to the streets they travelled every day to reject that assertion.
So, what happened in late December and early January? Was this a weather phenomenon that could not have been overcome, or a profound failure to provide a critical city service at our time of greatest need?
All things considered, Winnipeg may be the most difficult city in the country as far as snow clearing is concerned. Not because we get a lot of snow, but because of the prolonged cold and high winds that often follow storms.
On average, Winnipeg receives about 113 centimetres of snow annually. That may seem like a lot, except it is less than almost every other Canadian city of equal or greater size, save for balmy Vancouver and Victoria, B.C.
Even Toronto gets more snow on an annual basis.
So why do we have so much snow on our roads? The obvious answer is temperature.
In terms of sheer frigidity, Winnipeg is the coldest big city in Canada, with an average winter high of -12.7 C and an average low of -22.8 C.
Those cold temperatures ensure most of the snow that falls on Winnipeg sticks around until it is plowed, graded and hauled away. It also means Winnipeg spends more money — the annual budget is $32 million with at least $12.4 million more tacked on to that this winter — physically removing snow from streets than most other cities.
Brad Sacher, the city’s director of public works, said in less frigid cities, even those with heavier average snowfall, salt and chemicals do the majority of work removing snow from roads. Even when plowing is necessary, excess snow can be stored on the side of roadways and then melted away with salt, chemicals and good old-fashioned sunshine.
In Winnipeg, the severe cold significantly reduces the effectiveness of salt and the chemical cocktail that is sprayed on snowy roads. When the temperature gets below -21 C, as it did in late December, the city is totally reliant on physically plowing, grading and removing snow to make roads passable. And when it gets that cold, snow can be hard to contain. Dry, light snow can be removed and piled on the sides of the road, and then within minutes can blow right back onto the road.
This year was unusual because of a combination of significant snowfall, rapid drop in temperature and prolonged periods of cold and extreme winds. Weather, and not effort, budgetary concerns or methodology, was to blame for the ruts, Sacher said.
Backing up the city’s claim is the fact December was among the coldest ever in North America.
At the same time Winnipeg was wrestling with ruts, airports across central and eastern Canada and the United States were being crippled by the cold. The U.S. National Weather Service reported 2,000 individual records for cold temperature were set in the second week of December alone.
This "hard cold," as city workers call it, produced ruts that were much more difficult to pry off of pavement. "We had guys with 30 or 35 years experience saying it was the craziest conditions they had ever seen," Sacher said. "I don’t think it is appropriate to say that we have never seen anything like this before. But it was really unusual."
A full day-and-a-half before the snowstorm on Dec. 27 and 28, the city was ready. The seven district supervisors, along with crew foremen, met to discuss an action plan, as is the case whenever Winnipeg is due to get heavy snow. At that point, however, there was no indication how severe the conditions were going to be in the next couple of days.
The snow started falling in the early evening of Friday, Dec. 27, just as the temperature was beginning to fall. The high had been -1.4 C; by midnight, the temperature had dropped to -12 C and the snow was coming much harder.
Jim Berezowsky, the city’s manager of street maintenance, said the first 12 hours of this storm unfolded much like any other: More than 300 pieces of equipment were dispatched to plow the P1 (regional) and P2 (collector and bus) routes to keep traffic flowing. The operation at this time focused primarily on the use of truck plows, which clear the roads of snow as it is falling.
Normally, in the evening, graders, front-end loaders and semi-trailers are sent out to support the truck plows by scooping loose snow that is packed on the side of the road and hauled away to snow dumps.
With snowfall of up to three centimetres, the city will keep graders off the streets until overnight hours, in order to keep traffic moving. However, if the snowfall reaches five cm, then graders can be called out during the day.
With graders out in force on the 28th, it did not take long for city inspectors to report grader operators were unable to pry the ruts from the pavement.
Typically, even snow that has been hard-packed by heavy traffic can be broken up by graders. The city calls this the "chunking" method, where grader blades pull up large chunks or plates of snowpack. In this instance, Berezowsky said, the grader blades were skimming off the top of the ruts, unable to get to the pavement. This meant even those streets that were getting the majority of snow-clearing attention had, in some instances, the worst ruts.
"Very seldom does it happen that the snow pack actually bonds to the pavement," Berezowsky said. "Usually, it only happens when there is freezing rain on a bare street. This was very unusual for us."
The culprit, in this instance, was the rapid drop in temperature over the first day of the storm.
The temperature had dropped 11 degrees in less than 12 hours on the 27th; by 5 p.m. on the 28th, the temperature was registering -25 C, a drop of another 12 degrees. That was a 23-degree plunge in less than 24 hours. And once it became really cold, it stayed that way. The mean daily temperature from Dec. 28 to Jan. 8 was -25 C.
Berezowsky said graders, regardless of downward pressure or angle of the blade, could not get under the ruts. Some of the graders were using special serrated ice blades that are, in certain circumstances, good at loosening hard-packed ruts. This time, he said, the ice blades were literally only able to "scratch the surface."
Despite the difficulty in getting down to the pavement, Sacher said the city continued to perform daily hand-to-hand combat with the ruts.
With a typical snowstorm, the city will utilize up to 350 pieces of equipment and spend up to two days to clear the P1 and P2 networks, which include major regional streets along with collector and bus routes. If the snow is particularly heavy, or if high winds create a lot of drifting and blowing snow, that process can extend over several more days.
Even though the snow stopped on Dec. 28, the city continued to dispatch a full fleet of snow-clearing equipment on a daily basis to attack the ruts. Sacher admitted the results varied and in many areas, because of high traffic volumes and high winds, snow drifts were blowing in as quickly as truck plows could remove them.
Sacher conceded it was simply impossible to get down to bare pavement, as is required by the city’s snow-clearing policy. "We were wearing down our crews, and equipment was breaking," Sacher said. "But there was no decision to give up or back off. We just kept on going out to get to bare pavement."
(The city does not have a lot of data on how much equipment was broken down — 80 per cent is privately owned and they don’t share service records.)
Private contractors essentially made the same point. Most of the largest private snow-removal contractors are members of the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association. Chris Lorenc, president of MHCA, said he heard from many of his members conditions this year were among the worst they had ever seen.
Lorenc, a city councillor for almost a decade and a former chairman of the public works committee, said there have been instances over the years where weather can frustrate even the best snow-clearing equipment.
"I really do feel for the city on this one," Lorenc said. "I’ve lived all my life in this city. I honestly do not recall a winter that had the conditions we had this year. It’s not unusual for us to have cold. And it’s not unusual for us to have snow. But it’s very unusual for us to have all that snow and insanely low temperatures at the same time."
In any area of government service, there is always going to be a conflict between perception and reality.
For example, government can say it has hired more doctors. Statistics may show there are more doctors in the province.
But if you personally can’t find a family physician, then it’s easy to dispute the government’s claim.
So it is with snow removal. The city does not keep any data on winter road conditions or snowpack. Officials from public works said it is not practical to gather the information, because the depth of the snowpack, like the precipitation itself, varies so much across the city. You would need staff to visit and measure snowpack at hundreds, if not thousands, of data points.
Since it is impractical to collect that data, the debate over the ruts — and whether they were the worst ever — is impossible to settle in any empirical way.
We are left to rely on anecdotal evidence — and that means opinions will vary about how bad the weather was and how good or bad the city’s response was in the fact of that weather.
One of the perceptions is that between the storms of Dec. 27-28 and Jan. 4 — a period of seven days — no snow clearing took place.
This is essentially the allegation levelled by a number of current and former local government officials, including Coun. Russ Wyatt, chairman of the city’s finance committee, Coun. John Orlikow, a mayoral candidate in this fall’s municipal elections, and former Coun. Gord Steeves, another aspirant for the mayor’s office.
Orlikow, in a Jan. 15 news release, asserted the city had dropped the ball on snow clearing and demanded a public review "in light of the poor service provided."
Steeves was more blunt: "The latest problem came about because snow was allowed to accumulate and because other snow was anticipated, clearing was put off to try to cut costs."
Wyatt, however, may take the cake for pointed criticism. After defending a decision to delay residential plowing earlier in December, Wyatt turned on top bureaucrats following the Dec. 28 snowstorm, accusing them of defying city snow-clearing policy. "It’s pretty clear that we were going to have cold weather and we were going to have ruts again (much like in early December) and we had enough snow to justify plowing. There was nothing stopping them from following the policy — they chose not to."
What is remarkable about these claims is they do not try to make any distinction between snow clearing on P1 and P2 networks, and residential snow removal. And they have virtually no evidence to back them up. In some instances, policy and past practice do not support the claims at all.
On Dec. 29, the city announced it would not clear residential streets until after a second storm, expected around Jan. 3, hit town. From a public relations perspective, this is where the story started going sideways for the city.
Lorenc said it is not unusual for the city to delay residential plowing and grading, especially if there are two significant snowstorms expected within a week of each other.
During his time as chairman of the public works committee, Lorenc said he was often informed residential streets would be left to their own devices while busier P1 and P2 streets were cleared. Lorenc said this scenario is anticipated in the snow-clearing policy, which requires residential streets to be passable but not necessarily scraped to the pavement.
Residential plowing is the most time-consuming (up to seven days including notification period) and the most expensive ($5 million or more for a single pass) of the city’s three snow-clearing tiers. That means the possibility of additional, significant snowfall can be a huge disincentive for even beginning a residential clearing operation.
However, in this most recent instance, the combination of the nearly unprecedented conditions on major roads and the decision to delay residential plowing has created a widely held and lingering perception the city had stopped altogether to save money.
"I think the city simply left things too long," said Mike Mager, president and CEO of CAA Manitoba. "With snow, if you don’t get on it promptly, then it’s going to be a problem. I’ve talked with a lot of people and they said they’ve never seen a winter with such bad snow clearing."
Perhaps, but weather is one of those things where anecdotal experience beats data almost every time.
It is absolutely true the city decided to delay residential snow clearing. However, it is also true snow-clearing crews worked almost non-stop between the Dec. 28 and Jan. 4 snowstorms to get the ruts under control. And ultimately, the city was unable to scrape major roads to the pavement, as required by policy.
"The reality for us is that sometimes, you can throw everything you can at a problem like this and still not get the results you were looking for," said Sacher. "That was the story this time."
Given the widespread concern in the public that less plowing was done to save money, Sacher continues to deny any decisions were made simply to push costs from one budget year to another.
Similarly, Sacher said additional equipment and additional cycles of snow clearing would not have changed the outcome this time.
"Honestly, I don’t think we would do anything different the next time these conditions arise."
Ten things you need to know about snow clearing
1. Winnipeg gets very little snow.
It runs contrary to almost everything we see, but Winnipeg has among the lowest annual snowfalls of any major city. At 113 centimetres annually, we are considerably below many eastern cities and modestly less than cities such as Calgary and Edmonton. Even Toronto gets more snow than we do.
2. Winnipeg gets no break from the cold.
Our cold temperatures mean more of what falls on us sticks around. We have the coldest average winter temperatures (high of -12.7 C and low of -22.8 C) of any medium or big city.
3. Chemicals work well to melt snow, but not if it’s cold.
The magnesium chloride and salt used by the city to melt snow and ice are extremely effective, but only at warmer temperatures. Chemicals and salt begin to lose significant effectiveness around -13 C and become completely ineffective at -20 C.
4. It’s icy, but it’s not ice.
The ruts that plague city streets this winter are not, technically speaking, ice. In fact, it’s just dense snow, hard-packed by vehicular traffic and polished on top by tires and wind.
5. Sunshine is often the city’s best friend.
Under the right circumstances, sunshine can melt up to a centimetre of snow per day all on its own.
6. The city runs the snow-clearing show, but doesn’t own most of the equipment.
The city partners with private contractors to clear snow from streets. Right now, the city owns and operates only 20 per cent of the total equipment fleet for snow clearing, with contractors providing the other 80 per cent.
7. The biggest, busiest streets get cleared first, and quickest. Residential streets? Not so much.
The city always starts clearing snow from the P1 network, which includes the busiest regional roads. Then come P2 streets — collector and bus routes. Finally, after P1s and P2s are under control, the city will undertake a residential clearing operation.
There are 1,800 kilometres of roads in the P1 network. Under typical weather conditions, it takes nine to 12 hours to do one pass of plowing and grading on this network, and costs about $1 million (not including major hauling operations).
The 1,400 kilometres of P2 network take about 24 hours to clear and grade, at a cost of up to $1 million. There are 3,800 kilometres of residential streets in Winnipeg. It takes up to seven days to clear this network — two days of notification and five days of actual plowing and grading — and can cost up to $4.5 million.
8. With heavy snow comes multiple passes.
If snow is particularly heavy or persistent, the city must do multiple passes over the same stretch of roadway to keep them clear and passable. That adds up. It costs the city just over $1 million to do one pass of the P1 network with truck plows and grader support. That does not include chemical and sanding operations, snow hauling or sidewalk plowing.
9. The cost varies significantly based on the type of equipment being used.
The city has multiple types of equipment at its disposal to clear snow. Each has different cost implications.
For example, it costs about $450 per lane kilometre (one lane over one kilometre) to operate a truck plow. However, to run a grader over that one, kilometre-long lane would cost $900. Sidewalks seem to be a real bargain, at about $65 per kilometre.
10. All that sand that gets tracked into your home — hang on to it because it’s expensive.
The sand used by the city to improve traction costs a whopping $1,600 per lane kilometre to apply.
If you think that’s expensive, consider it costs $3,300 per lane kilometre to apply snow and ice-melting chemicals.