Toronto ready to tackle winter, has ‘learned’ from last year’s snow-clearing efforts: officials

Councillor vows to ‘stay on top of’ this year’s efforts after problems with contractor

Officials say Toronto is ready to clear roads, sidewalks and bike lanes of snow and ice this winter, but at least one councillor is hoping that contractors don’t fall short as they did last year.

At a news conference on Monday, Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie unveiled the city’s winter maintenance plan, saying it has a proposed budget of more than $100 million and a fleet of more than 1,400 pieces of snow-clearing equipment.

That equipment will be used to tackle roughly 14,700 kilometres of roads, 7,900 kilometres of sidewalks, and 956 kilometres of separated bike lanes and multi-use trails. The city has begun to deliver the snow clearing vehicles to yards across Toronto.

“Winter can have a dramatic effect on Toronto. It impacts how we get around, our homes and our businesses, as well as our crucial, critical infrastructure,” McKelvie said. “While it can be a formidable challenge, the City of Toronto has a comprehensive and highly coordinated snow and ice response plan that prioritizes the safety and movement of residents and visitors above all else,” she added.

“These funds will be used strategically and smartly to help keep everyone moving safely using the travel methods they prefer.”

The plan, however, follows an operating variance report in June that found that the city spent $26.4 million more than planned on winter maintenance last winter because of the number of winter events. Two other reports from city auditor general Tara Anderson also examined winter maintenance contracts — one looking at procurement and awarding of contracts and the other looking at the status of processes to hold contractors accountable.

The reports found Toronto’s snow-clearing operations were plagued by equipment and personnel shortages as well as a complicated GPS rollout that initially prevented hundreds of vehicles from being tracked. In Toronto, private contractors handle the majority of snow-clearing work.

They also raised questions about how the city’s contracts, worth nearly $1.5 billion over the next decade, were largely won by two companies and their joint venture, and how the transportation staff responsible for them were overseeing the work.

Earlier this year, the city issued millions in penalties for the performance of contractors. These penalties are known as “liquidated damages.” Contractors were penalized for leaving a depot late and not correcting problems with two hours of being notified.

City plans to be ‘diligent’ in oversight of contractors

Vincent Sferrazza, director of operations and maintenance for the city’s transportation services, said the city will be “diligent” this year in its oversight of contractors’ performance.

“We are actually very close to finalizing those liquidated damages. I think we’re probably literally within weeks away from getting those resolved and moving on,” he said.

The city said liquidated damages are not meant to be punitive but a way to recoup some money from contractors and that the city will be ready to apply them from the start of the winter season.

Winter readiness plan 2
Staff are said to be already tracking weather forecasts and staff are preparing streets for snow by street sweeping and road resurfacing projects, vehicle and equipment maintenance, replenishing salt supplies and filling potholes. (Spencer Gallichan-Lowe/CBC)

Coun. Paul Ainslie, who represents Ward 24, Scarborough-Guildwood, said there were many problems with snow clearing last winter, it was a “frustrating” season and he will continue to monitor the city’s winter operations this year. 

“I experienced it myself, getting off of the GO Train to go get a TTC bus and climbing over mounds of snow to try and just get to the bus stop,” he said.

Ainslie said he heard from constituents about snow-clearing problems, including sidewalks not being plowed and sidewalk plows destroying the edges of lawns.

“Not the best value of taxpayers’ dollars and I’m certainly going to continue to stay on top of this because I want it done properly.”

‘We have learned a great deal from past storms’

McKelvie, chair of the city’s infrastructure and environment committee, said the city has learned from its snow-clearing efforts last year.

“With the effects of climate change, we know that the extreme winter weather is becoming more common. This is challenging for everyone, but we have learned a great deal from past storms and we are prepared for whatever this winter will bring. I want to assure you that safety is and will always be our number one priority,” she said.

Winter readiness plan 3
Earlier this year, the city issued millions in penalties for the performance of contractors. These penalties are known as ‘liquidated damages.’ Contractors were penalized for leaving a depot late and not correcting problems with two hours of being notified. (Spencer Gallichan-Lowe/CBC)

McKelvie said staff are already tracking weather forecasts and are preparing streets for snow with street sweeping and road resurfacing projects, vehicles and equipment maintenance, replenishing salt supplies and filling potholes. The city has filled more than 167,000 potholes this year already.

Barbara Gray, general manager of the city’s transportation services division, defended the city’s record last winter. 

“We only pay for what we use. Last year, we had a series of activations of storms. While we did not go over budget, we did use more than we had anticipated we were going to,” she said.

The reports last summer also found that hundreds of vehicles that were supposed to have GPS tracking did not, but the city says all are now outfitted for the upcoming season. The city says it has also developed a series of performance oversight tools.

“We have technology tools that we never really had before where we’re able to check pretty quickly to make sure that those GPS units are functioning and we also check on a regular basis as the season proceeds to make sure they’re in good working order.”

Gray said it’s also important to remember that every storm is different.

“Each storm is a unique event, and depending on how heavy the snow is and if it moves around during the time it’s on the ground because of the wind, it can take multiple passes of clearing equipment to make these areas safe and passable,” she said.

Gray said applying salt is the “first line of defence” and completing one full round of salting can take up to eight hours. Plowing gets underway once snow begins to accumulate. When the snow is:

  • Expressways are plowed when snow is 2.5 centimetres deep.
  • Major roads and transit routes are plowed when snow is five centimetres deep.
  • Residential streets are plowed when snow is eight centimetres deep.

Gray said this is the third year that the city has expanded its snow-clearing efforts using sidewalk-clearing machines on the majority of sidewalks in Toronto. She added that the city has increased its focus on clearing bike lanes of snow. Separated bike planes and multi-use paths will be cleared when the snow is two centimetres deep.