Toronto seeks consultant to potentially undercut street sweeping environmental standards

Councillors weren't told directly, but city staff are prepared to spend thousands on a consultant who will make recommendations that could undercut environmental standards when it comes to street sweeping in Toronto.

City council doesn’t get chance to vote on work; U.S.-based expert thinks will cost some $200K

Toronto currently has fewer sweepers than it did years ago, and now a new consultation process could lead the city to purchase machines that don't meet the current environmental standard. (Timothy Neesam/CBC)

City staff are prepared to spend thousands on a consultant who is being asked to make recommendations that could undercut environmental standards when it comes to street sweeping in Toronto.

Councillors weren't told about the consultation directly. Instead, funding for a "street sweeping study" was buried in the latest transportation budget.

One industry expert suggests the consultation isn't necessary and could wind up costing some $200,000, likening it to the city building a clock when all it needs to do is check the time.

Staff won't disclose how much the city will pay, saying doing so would jeopardize the bidding process. 

Two councillors — first alerted to the proposed work by CBC Toronto — were mixed on the move.

"Toronto city council took a position over a decade ago that the air quality of Torontonians had to be first and foremost when purchasing street sweeping equipment," said Parkdale-High Park Coun. Gord Perks, who said this matter should "absolutely" have gone before council.

"If the city staff are ignoring that council decision something is very wrong."

Perks is referring to the city's award-winning Clean Roads to Clean Air program, which included purchasing a fleet of regenerative-air street sweepers that studies show have reduced toxic fine particulate matter in the air by at least 27 per cent.

Only one model of street sweeper passes the testing required under the program, but it appears city staff want to use different vehicles in the future. In an email statement to CBC News, city staff maintain they won't compromise council-approved environmental standards, but the public tender seeking consultations shows they're seeking changes to the current testing protocols.

Coun. Gord Perks, centre, says city council should have a say on whether or not any changes are made to the current environmental standards governing street sweeping in the city. (John Rieti/CBC)

Etobicoke Centre Coun. Stephen Holyday says city staff have the delegated authority to consult on issues like this, and noted it's likely more affordable for the city to hire someone to research street sweeping best practices than train an internal specialist.

Holyday said the consultant's findings, which are also expected to include details about levels of service and what other jurisdictions are doing on their roads, should then go before councillors.

"These are all really good questions for a council floor," he said.

Make no mistake, street sweeping matters. The city's own research shows not sweeping regularly results in higher levels of pollution in the air you breathe and the water that washes from the streets into Lake Ontario. As recently as 2017, Toronto Public Health estimated that air pollution contributes to 1,300 premature deaths and 3,550 hospitalizations every year.

The city currently has 30 new sweepers, but as of this spring it was also relying on 17 machines that are past their expected lifespan. That's fewer machines than the city had a decade ago, and those machines are now cleaning a denser, dirtier Toronto. 

What's changing?

The consultation request is wide-ranging and goes as far as asking the consultant to set up an air quality monitoring system. Sweeper-wise, there are two major changes:

First, the city states, without citing evidence: "A mixed fleet of sweepers is essential in order to ensure the maximum effectiveness under various operational conditions." 

That change would likely see Toronto use mechanical broom sweepers, which city staff say are needed for things like spring and post-storm clean-up, leaf collection an expressway cleaning. However, those machines don't pass current environmental testing. Right now, the city contracts out its spring cleanup work.

Second, the city wants the consultant to "evaluate" sweeper testing protocols as to "not preclude testing of certain street sweeper technologies."

Vincent Sferrazza, the director of maintenance and operations at the transportation services division, told CBC News right now some sweepers can't be "fairly evaluated," but didn't say why that is.

"Sweeper technology has evolved since the city's testing protocols were first introduced and we've learned that some refinement to those protocols is required to accommodate the testing of new types of sweeper technologies," Sferrazza said in an email. 

The Tymco DST-6 is the only sweeper that meets the city's current environmental standard, but city staff haven't explicitly said they don't want to rely on that vehicle alone. Recently, the city bought lesser-model Tymcos staff claim are better for Toronto's needs.

Tymco is the only company that pays to have its machines tested by ETV Canada — the organization that oversees the environmental testing — something the city knows from the last time it tried to stage a competitive bid.

Mixed fleet might work, but consultation will be costly: expert

Bill Ackendorf, a retired U.S.-based sweeper salesman with 30 years of experience, likes to use a saying that all sweepers suck. "You just want to pick the one that sucks the least," he says.

Ackendorf is used to dealing with bureaucracy — at one point, he sold sweepers to the U.S. Marine Corps to use on aircraft carriers — but warns Toronto's consulting report could cost some $200,000 just to come up with recommendations that are a non-starter with councillors. 

An American expert warns city staff might spend big on a report only to have councillors reject its recommendations. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Ackendorf said he'd recommend a mixed fleet of sweepers, and believes the consultation report is an attempt to move away from the current environmental rules. However, he said, there's a chance the winning firm may urge the city to stick with its current rules, which would make it even more reliant on Tymco's DST-6. 

"It's a very expensive machine," he said of that sweeper.

"It's very difficult to maintain and it's very costly to maintain," said Ackendorf, who has worked for competing companies during his career.

He also said the machine's impressive testing results don't translate to the real world.

Toronto's leadership, he said, "have put such high priority on the environmental side of this equation that it's compromising the decision-making and selection process of their operations and their maintenance department."

But, Ackendorf said the costly consultation isn't the way to go. Instead, he said city staff should talk with every vendor in the marketplace to review options, then have a public discussion about whether or not current environmental rules are working for Toronto. 

That might be met with resistance.

Perks said while he's open to reviewing the sweepers' performance, the city shouldn't abandon its environmental requirements for future purchases. 

"If we drop our standards then nobody has any incentive to manufacture equipment that puts air quality first and foremost," he said.


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