It's that time of year again when we all wish we could be on some warm tropical island or somewhere outside the city where the beauty of winter wonderlands can be better appreciated.
The bean counters at City Hall have been lucky: the last several years, with the exception of 2008, have been fairly balmy. But snowplowing still costs $65 to $70 million a year, eating up about a quarter of the total transportation budget - and generating a torrent of emotional issues over fairness.
Toronto averages around 130 cm of snow per year, and salt trucks or plows are dispatched 40 to 50 times annually to some roads. Moreover, clearing is a big operation, involving over 1,300 employees, two-thirds of whom are contracted as part of a deal the city makes with companies to keep staff and vehicles on standby, paying them a base fee whether we get any accumulation or not.
Most years, the snow budget isn't spent, and the extra theoretically goes into a reserve fund to deal with years like 2008. Our allocation is about half that of Montreal's, not because we get less snow (we do), but because we can often leave the snow to melt during warm spells like the one we just had.
Still, for every 15 to 25 mm of snow removed, the cost is $15 to $25 mil.
Beyond the costs, we face the always dicey issues around priorities. Highways get treated first, followed by main roads like Yonge and Bloor. (Toronto doesn't do actual snow removal - taking it away or melting it - except when the buildup threatens to close streets and block emergency vehicles. It's very expensive, costing around $15 to $25 million a shot, and we haven't done it since 2008.)
Double standard issues arise over the fact that suburbs get their sidewalks plowed (a leftover from pre-amalgamation days), while downtowners are required under the Municipal Code's chapter 719 to clear the pavement within 12 hours of a snowfall or risk a $125 fine.
Suburbanites also get free windrow (or driveway) opening clearing, while those in the city core must do it themselves.
These inequities come up regularly at budget time, but the sheer cost of levelling the playing field usually puts an end to the discussion. Plowing all downtown sidewalks - with specialized equipment or manually - would cost around $15 million, while cancelling the service in the burbs would only save about $10 mil. The price tag for windrow clearing is around $3.5 million a year, although offering it downtown could more than double the cost, if it were even possible given our narrow roads.
Then there's the fact that bike lanes get no respect. Officially they're supposed to be ploughed; alas, this does not happen, and most bike lanes remain impassible in wintertime.
Snow-clearing issues also trigger environmental complaints. Consider the eco price of running 300 sidewalk plows, 600 road plows and numerous salting trucks, and up to 150,000 tonnes of salt used yearly, much of which runs into the lake, invades green spaces and burns trees.
While efforts to reduce the amount of salt through better application techniques and applying wetted salt before the snow falls have mitigated the problem somewhat, there's still too much contamination. And alternatives like calcium chloride and magnesium chloride are five to eight times more expensive.
Developers sometimes install electronic melting systems that use electric cables or hydraulic tubing filled with heated glycol in or underneath the pavement around office towers and parking facilities. But they suck way too much energy and are too costly to use widely, although one can imagine their selective use to clear bike lanes.
We live in a winter city, and municipal government has an obligation to make mobility as equitable as possible. It's positive that the TTC will soon have 100 per cent accessible surface vehicles, but those in mobility devices and wheelchairs still lack equal access to thoroughfares unless sidewalks and TTC stops are ploughed better and faster, and laws around snow shovelling strictly enforced.
Even under current standards and rules, it can take two days to clear TTC stops, and property owners have 12 hours to clear sidewalks. For people who don't get around easily, that wait is unacceptable. Just to meet standards of fairness, more money will have to be diverted to improve response time. If nothing is done, Wheel-Trans will continue to require extra tens of millions of dollars to provide mobility to those who can't manage the snow.
As always when it comes to municipal services, reducing inequities is the name of the game.