Another snow storm from city hall

Toughest job in Prince George this week?

Without question, the staff at the service centre at city hall, answering calls from residents about snow removal.

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In just three days this week (Tuesday being the New Year's Day holiday), 380 calls were made to city hall about snow removal and it's fair to guess most of the calls weren't praise for a job well done.

Unfortunately, the folks answering the phones at city hall are the people with the least power to do anything about it. They can simply create a service request file and pass it along.

On Wednesday morning, The Citizen asked the city by email for a detailed breakdown of where the snow removal equipment (both city and contractor) was and which streets were done from Friday, Dec. 28 at noon to Jan. 2 at 9 a.m. in order to compare the clearing activities to the route priorities to see if city protocol was followed.

Late Thursday afternoon, Michael Kellett, the city's senior communications officer, sent a non-response response that basically regurgitated the previous media releases sent out by the city. Those releases state the number of plows, graders, loaders and other machines that were working during the various shifts and they were clearing Priority 1 and Priority 2 streets.

"In terms of the location of snow removal equipment at a given time, I would refer you to, which includes detailed information about the City snow and ice control procedure, which was approved by City Council in 2014, and includes information about priority routes, timelines, etc.," Kellett wrote. "The City regularly provides this information to residents to give them a rough idea of where equipment is going and when. Crews will sometimes opt to plow certain priority one routes, such as downtown streets, at night in order to lessen traffic disruption."

In other words, The Citizen's request was ignored. Which specific streets was all that equipment working and when?

The frustration with the snow removal after last Friday/Saturday's hefty snowfall is warranted because it's clear the city didn't meet its own service level standards.

According to the snow information posted on the city's website, Priority 1 and Priority 2 streets will be cleared within 48 hours (two days) after a snowfall of 7.5 cm or more in 24 hours. The remainder of city roadways will be cleared within 72 hours (three days) after Priority 1 and Priority 2 streets are completed if more than 12 cm of snow falls.

Did the city meet its own targets?

Mostly yes, but with some glaring omissions. But it's impossible to give a further answer without a proper answer from the city.

On Monday at 5 p.m., more than 30 hours after the snow stopped falling, Westwood and Ferry (Priority 1) and the entire light industrial area east of Queensway (Priority 2) remained untouched and they certainly weren't the only ones, if posts to social media and The Citizen's website are any indication.

Furthermore, the word "cleared" in the snow removal policy suggests that these Priority 1 and 2 routes will be fully open to all traffic, rather than Priority 1 four-lane streets like Fifth Avenue, 15th Avenue, Massey Drive and Queensway still operating with just two lanes in several areas due to windrows piled up in the middle.

On one hand, the snow removal crews and contractors should be praised for the fine work they did do but it's also their job to do fine work. Since they clearly failed in several areas by the city's own measurement, it is entirely appropriate for residents to point out those failures and demand to know why that level of service pledged to residents in writing on the city's website wasn't met.

Residents were far more forgiving in February 2018 because the city was slammed with two significant snowfalls over the course of three days. The second storm reset the clock for the city and local drivers accepted this. While there were still the complainers, most people understood when it took nearly a week for a city plow and front end loader to get to their quiet cul de sac. They understood the windrows on the major routes. So even though the city didn't fully meet its service level for snow removal then, there was a clear reason why.

The Friday/Saturday 35 cm snowfall was significant but it didn't break any records (which are measured in calendar days, as opposed to 24-hour periods). In the days afterwards, it was followed by seven centimetres of light snow that didn't meet the 7.5 cm "snow event" standard and then light and/or freezing rain for the past few days.

Yet on Thursday afternoon, a full five days after the snow stopped falling, crews were reaching some residential streets for the first time. In other words, not only was the city unable to meet service levels for clearing Priority 1 and 2 streets, it also failed to meet the standard for the lowest priority streets.

Are these service levels unreasonable? If so, they should be reviewed and changed to set more acceptable standards, both in the amount of time needed to do the job and in the amount of roadway expected to be cleared.

If the service levels are reasonable, however, then what went wrong? Were crews and equipment improperly dispatched, both in terms of timeliness and to the areas they were sent to clear?

Asking these questions, holding individuals accountable if mistakes were made and expecting better in the future is essential. Taxpayers should be able to trust service level expectations set by government. Furthermore, fire trucks, police cars and ambulances need to be able to respond quickly to emergencies. Major streets cleared of snow are simply convenient for most drivers but they can be a matter of life and death for first-response crews.

Hopefully in the coming days, some real answers will be forthcoming from city hall.

-- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout

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