It’s been a cold and snowy few weeks, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Mayor Dennis O’Keefe and a few St. John’s city councillors have found that their ears are burning. Why? Because the talk of the Christmas season — at parties, in letters to the editor, at the office and in social media — has been about the city and its snowclearing efforts.
And the talk has been anything but complimentary.
The general tenor of the discussion (which, to be fair, is far more anecdotal than it is scientific) is that, in some areas, snowclearing seems to be slipping: downtown hills that used to be cleared repeatedly now get one sweeping cut and then seem to vanish off the snowclearing radar. The limited areas cleared by sidewalk plows are filled in again by street widening; in other areas, street widening in freezing weather is creating impenetrable walls of ice blocks.
More pointed? Especially as far as people who try to walk in the city are concerned, the current level of sidewalk clearing simply isn’t adequate, and doesn’t measure up to the standard that a city this size should have. Walking in the current snow conditions is not only difficult, it’s downright dangerous, and it’s only a matter of time until more walkers are seriously injured or even killed. When streets are barely two lanes, are coated with icy slush and have both walkers and cars, something’s going to give — and it’s likely to be whatever is the most fragile.
Mayor O’Keefe recently complained that Canada Post’s plan to get rid of door-to-door delivery will cause hardships for the aged and the disabled — at the same time, those same aged and disabled can be close to trapped in their homes by the lack of effective snow clearing.
The city’s position has been that it is doing the best it can, given the unique design of the downtown, the limits of its budget and the sheer volume of snow we get in our winters. That’s legitimate — to a point. And that point is whether you can say that it’s working effectively. There are plenty of people who say it isn’t, that things are getting worse, and they have the war stories to prove it.
Technology doesn’t always help make the case that everything’s working just grand: Monday morning, with snow forecast since last Friday, a trip to the City of St. John’s real-time snowplow tracking website at 10 a.m. showed just four operational pieces of equipment — one truck snowplow and three front-end loaders with plows. By 10, streets were already snow-covered and greasy, and the four pieces of equipment shown on the website? All four were parked at the depot.
In the great wide expanse of the rest of the city, the website said there was not a single piece of equipment operating. Twenty minutes later, there were 14 pieces of equipment fired up: 12 were still at the depot, and just two on the road. (By 11:30, 13 pieces of equipment were fanned out city-wide.)
Other cities do better, and do things differently. Perhaps it’s time to start looking at new solutions, rather than saying that we have to live with the status quo because it’s the best we can do.