A numbers game: The City of Lethbridge learns to manage unpredictable winters

By Shayna Wiwierski

A Southern Alberta city saw lower costs associated with snow and ice control than other similar provincial communities from 2012 to 2014.

The Alberta Municipal Benchmarking Initiative – Snow & Ice Control was released in April 2018 and included five municipalities – Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Red Deer, Banff, and Canmore. The study allows city workers to identify trends, prioritize, and make changes in the delivery of snow and ice removal.

Although Lethbridge rated high in cost effectiveness, Darwin Juell, transportation manager for the City of Lethbridge, says that he doesn’t like to compare the city with others around Alberta due to the difference in their climates and weather patterns.

“If you look at the differences between northern, southern, and central Albertan cities, Lethbridge is a bit unique in that it’s close to the mountains, so we get lots of snow and precipitation, but also favourable chinooks that can occur anytime throughout the winter months,” says Juell, who previously came from Grande Prairie in 2005, another high snow-belt area. “In Lethbridge, it was about 10 years of moderate climate conditions, so we got spoiled and used to it, and then we got some real winters and the public went crazy requiring increased snow removal and we had to react with better snow and ice control policies, operational procedures, and substantial funding increases for snow and ice control.”

The City of Lethbridge gears up for the season on approximately October 1, doing prep work for snow fall. They start their regular shifts on November 1, with dedicated staff on winter storm watch, with shifts providing 24-hour coverage, seven days a week.

As a result, in 2009 Juell created the City of Lethbridge Snow and Ice Control Policy, which was approved by city council and was modelled after similar policies in Prince George, B.C., Edmonton, and Grande Prairie, Alta. The city had a previous outdated policy in place from 1997, and the biggest difference was the creation of priority systems, which are based on traffic speed, topography, and traffic/pedestrian volumes. As a result, the first priority is designated arterial roadways; Priority 2 being the remaining arterials and designated collectors; Priority 3 being the remaining collectors, controlled intersections (stops and yields,) and bus routes; and Priority 4 being all other City-controlled roadways and laneways.

Another change that happened in 2009 was an increase to the budget. The finance director at the time ended up doubling the snow removal budget from just over $1.5 million to $3 million.

“Once the policy was in place, that gave us the mandate to do the work on a priority basis. Every year we have done something to improve the snow and ice control operation, whether it’s buying a second snow blower or upgrading sander plows so they have the proper equipment on them. We also added variable speed signs on Whoop-Up Drive, and we were one of the first in Canada to create variable speed limits because of a major storm,” says Juell, who adds that they also created snow routes in 2014/15 and a variable speed limit on Whoop-Up Drive with a full weather station at this location, the only river crossing in the town that’s a 90-kilometre zone (there is a second river crossing location under Alberta Transportation control with much more gradual grades). In winter road conditions, the speed limit on Whoop-Up may be lowered to 60 km/h through this river crossing in order to reduce collisions and enhance public safety (the Whoop-Up Drive crossing is the city’s busiest roadway with over 50,000 vehicles per day).

Every year since 2009 the budget has slightly gone up by one-and-a-half per cent since the City has grown this amount, however, they have also absorbed increases in salt, sand, chemicals, equipment, and contractors, that increased due to inflation. Most of the snow removal is contracted out and they have emergency snow removal contracts ready to go. The City gears up for the season on approximately October 1, doing prep work for snow fall, and they start their regular shifts on November 1 with dedicated staff on winter storm watch, with shifts providing 24-hour coverage, seven days a week. Their core staff operates primarily sander plows and the operation of two graders, two loaders, and two snow blowers, whereas trucks and additional graders are contracted out as required. The city has 13 sander plows, some with front blades and others with underbodies, and one one-ton truck for 24-hour coverage (winter water shift). Any money left over from the snow and ice control budget at the end of the year goes into the Municipal Revenue Stabilization Reserve (MRSR), which is then used for a year in which the City exhausts its yearly snow and ice control budget due to extreme winter weather.

Since winters in Lethbridge are unpredictable, the city’s 10-year average from 2008 to 2017 was $3.513 million per year, however range between $2.5 to greater than $5 million over the same period. For 2018, they are already slightly over their budget as of June 1, 2018 since they were hit with major snowstorms in January, February, and March of this year that used up approximately $2 million of funds only for snow removal (the total budget for 2018 is $4.5 million).

The city has 13 sander plows, some with front blades and others with underbodies, and one one-ton truck for 24-hour coverage (winter water shift).

The city breaks up snow removal into three categories: ice control, snow removal, and parks snow clearing, which are all separate, yet inter-related operations. Ice control is sanding and plowing, and fairly consistent every year.

“When it snows a little and gets cold, you have to sand and plow all arterial and some collector roads. What’s expensive – and very variable depending on snow fall – is snow removal, which is a separate process of windrowing snow with a grader to the middle, using a snowblower to load a train of trucks, and getting trucks to haul it off to an approved snow dump site (the City has two locations). You either have to use a snow blower to load snow into the trucks or a loader with a large bucket, and this process is about five times more expensive to do than ice control,” says Juell, adding that snow removal is where you can blow the budget out of whack. “You have to do lots of snow removal if it snows heavy as compared to a steady winter where it snows a little, but is spread over a longer duration.”

The City meets at the beginning of the winter season to review the process from the following year and work on improving their efficiencies. Priority maps are adjusted and communication plans are determined.

“Anything you can do to improve on snow and ice control, that’s what we are looking for. There is no magic solution,” says Juell, who adds that the key thing is you have to temper public expectations with the reality of an unpredictable winter every year. “What are they willing to spend in taxpayer dollars? Cities must balance public and council’s expectations for tolerance of tax increases. I think we are doing a good job of balancing that. Remember, if people aren’t complaining during a major weather event, then you are doing too good of a job.”

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