Expect snow clearing changes this winter as Ottawa tries to get costs under control

The City of Ottawa releases its long-anticipated report on how to prevent snow clearing from going over budget, just as residents head into summer.

City hopes to save up to $6 million annually

The City of Ottawa hopes to save money by making changes to its snow clearing operations. (CBC)

The City of Ottawa wants to send snowplows down residential streets after 10 centimetres of snow falls, instead of seven.

It also intends to hire extra contractors to go out on roads after big winter storms, and make sure one suburb doesn't get plowed before another.

The recommendations stem from two long-anticipated reviews done by staff and the consulting firm KPMG. They looked at how to reduce costs, especially when the city keeps blowing its winter operations budget.

"There's an expectation that we have excellent service for snow removal. We're a snowy capital," said Coun. Keith Egli, who chairs the transportation committee.

"We wanted to maintain as much of that service as we still could but at the same time recognize there are financial constraints on what we can and cannot do."

How could snow clearing change on city roads?

The proposed lower standard relates specifically to residential streets. Instead of the trigger being seven centimetres of snowfall, council is being asked to bump that up to 10 centimetres.
Coun. Keith Egli chairs Ottawa's transportation committee. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

"There will be no change whatsoever in how we deal with bus routes, arterials, sidewalks, bike lanes," said Egli.

Some minor collector roads have been getting extra plowing and salting because they're lumped into the same routes as arterial roads. Expect those minor collectors to be dealt with six hours into a storm, like they're supposed to be, instead of three.

Will the city try anything new?

It wants to test out having plows reverse their routes through neighbourhoods, so they don't travel the same direction every time. That way, the same streets won't always be plowed first — or last. 

Also, the same side of the street won't always get that first pass of the plow, and have a bigger snowbank all winter long.

You might even see a garbage truck with an attachable plow pitch in. Staff say this has been done in some U.S. cities, and want to try it out on one truck.

How much more contracting out will the city do?

The city will use the $500,000 it hopes to save from increasing the trigger point to 10 cm, and use it to hire an extra 20 contractors to speed up plowing and salting after a big storm, according to Egli.

Cleanup in Ottawa's Vanier neighbourhood after a snowstorm earlier this year. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)
Right now, 70 per cent of the winter operations fleet is city-owned, and the other 30 per cent of machinery is run by private contractors. That same ratio goes for staff.

The city's auditor found other cities contract out more of the work, and suggested the city revisit that idea.

Contracting out did not make it into these recommendations, but Egli wouldn't be surprised if it eventually comes up for debate.

How much money does the city hope to save from all this?

Annually, about $6 million total.

Note that doesn't quite cover the deficits of recent years, and there's no promise these proposed changes can keep winter operations on budget.

"You can do your best guesstimate of how much snow we're going to get, but at the end of the day Mother Nature decides," said Egli.

Why has the city been going over budget, anyway?

The city has added 390 kilometres of road and 226 kilometres of sidewalk in the past five years, but KPMG found budget increases haven't kept pace.

The city would need to spend an extra $7.6 million each year to keep up its current standards, said KPMG. Incidentally, that's the exact amount winter operations logged as a deficit for 2015.

How does Ottawa stack up against other cities?

"The service levels approved by council are significantly higher than those required by the province, and are higher than those provided in other cities," wrote KPMG.

Ottawa gets an average 223 cm of snow a year. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)
London, Kingston, Mississauga, Sudbury and Markham all have lower standards than Ottawa does, KPMG found. Toronto's standards are similar, but it doesn't plow sidewalks.

The city has also been found to surpass its already high standards.

Ottawa also gets a lot of snow — 223 centimetres per year on average. Québec City and Saint John are the only major Canadian cities that receive more.

Does any of this have to do with lawsuits?

The city routinely deals with lawsuits from people who are hurt slipping on a road or sidewalk they say wasn't maintained properly. The legal department reports it's received 4,000 such claims between 2010 and 2015.

City lawyers write that, in the vast majority of cases, they can show the city met its legal obligations, but they can bolster their defence if council approves these changes.

When will changes be debated?

Transportation committee meets, and will hear from the public, next Wednesday.

The city routinely deals with lawsuits from people hurt on snowy and icy roads and sidewalks. (CBC)
Egli knows people aren't thinking about snow storms now, but says the issue has to be dealt with this summer because plow beats and schedules are already being prepared for the coming winter.

City council is then set to discuss the changes to winter operations on July 13.

Mayor Jim Watson has said in the past that the solution is not to throw more money at winter operations to deal with annual deficits, but to look at reducing the city's costs and standards, just like this report recommends.