This city desperately needs to rethink its expectations around snow clearing.
For the past month, Winnipeggers have been engaged in a daily struggle with snow-covered, rut-ravaged roadways. Basic manoeuvres such as changing lanes and stopping at red lights have become high-risk, white-knuckle exercises. All in all, it is one of the worst winters ever for automobile collisions, with more than 20,000 claims in December alone, Manitoba Public Insurance said.
How could Winnipeg -- one of the coldest, wintriest cities in the world -- do such a poor job of clearing snow and ice off our streets? Remarkably, no one is entirely sure at this point.
Senior public works officials have blamed the conditions on extreme cold and too frequent snowstorms, which prompted decisions to delay the deployment of snow-clearing equipment.
In late December, the city delayed plowing for up to five days because another storm was on the way. The result was ruts built up on top of already frozen, dangerous ruts.
We have also learned that despite budgeting more than ever before on snow clearing -- $32 million last year alone -- we're going to be far over budget. To make matters worse, a special reserve to cover snow-clearing overruns was exhausted four years ago and never replenished.
Where does that leave us? Unless you've got your head buried in the snow, we're in urgent need of a reboot on snow-clearing policy.
Snow clearing is, generally speaking, not influenced by individual city councillors. Senior bureaucrats, guided by a snow-clearing policy, make the hard decisions about where and when plowing and scraping is to be conducted.
Major thoroughfares are supposed to be cleared first, followed by secondary routes and then, finally, residential streets. The busiest streets are supposed to be scraped to the pavement, while residential streets are left with some hard-packed snow.
Bureaucrats assured citizens they are not slowing the frequency of snow clearing in a bid to keep the budget under control, or to push costs from one fiscal year to another. And all evidence to date seems to indicate they are telling us the truth.
Which brings us to the precipice of a debate that almost no one at city hall wants to have: Exactly how much snow clearing can we reasonably expect?
Winnipeg has enjoyed what some believe is a "Cadillac" level of service. The clearing of snow from sidewalks, back lanes and windrows in front of suburban driveways -- services not offered in many other winter cities -- are all built into Winnipeg's plowing policy. However, in those instances when we simply don't have the time to remove the snow and icy ruts on major streets, and overall spending on snow clearing is rising precipitously, should we continue to expect Cadillac service?
For many years now, the city has been paring down the services it provides as part of a longer-term erosion of municipal government, where we seem to pay a little bit more each year and get a little less back in return.
For example, the city used to cut the grass on boulevards in older neighbourhoods. Homeowners now bear the burden of that job, and while there was some resentment at first, most of us have come to accept it as reasonable.
Should sidewalks in older neighbourhoods and driveway windrows in newer areas of the city become the responsibility of homeowners? Perhaps residential streets should only have one lane cleared, instead of the current curb-to-curb approach?
Many on city council believe we can continue to have our windrows and plow them too.
"I'm hearing from my constituents that snow clearing is not an area where we should cut back," said Coun. Scott Fielding, who expects to run for mayor this fall. "I think we need to get back to doing our scraping a bit earlier."
Others on council, while not yet ready to advocate for cuts to services, would still like to see a full debate on exactly how much snow clearing we can afford, particularly at a time when climate change is promising to produce more frequent, more severe weather events. "Given all of the pressures we're facing now, what level of service should we be expecting?" said Coun. John Orlikow. "I think of all the things the city does, snow clearing should be our Cadillac service. However, we need to figure out what that's going to cost."
In the final analysis, this problem was created by a collision of conditions no snow-clearing policy could adequately address.
City officials left the streets in a bad state for a few days longer than we all would have liked.
However, the attention on snow clearing has certainly revealed some pressing issues -- both fiscal and meteorological -- that may require us to adjust our expectations in the coming years.