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Public turns up heat over City of Nanaimo’s performance in December snow storms

Snow plow operators vexed by sustained sub-freezing temperatures and heavy road ice buildup
Vehicles struggle over packed snow and ice at the busy Bowen and Comox roads, Wall and Machleary streets intersection, Dec. 29. Sustained sub-freezing temperatures and repeated heavy snowfalls in December meant Nanaimo’s snow plow operators could barely keep up with clearing even the city’s main arterial roads. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

The City of Nanaimo has taken heat from the public over clearing Nanaimo’s streets following unusually cold weather and heavy snowfalls.

In December – the fourth coldest recorded since 1892 – and January, areas of Nanaimo received up to 130 centimetres of snow between Dec. 25 and Jan. 1, but sustained cold temperatures challenged city snow plow operators and it was several days before they could even clear the city’s major arterial roads of snow and ice.

Bill Sims, Nanaimo general manager of engineering and public works, likened conditions in Nanaimo to those found in Ontario or the B.C. Interior.

“It was the nature of the event that really tripped us up here,” Sims said.

Multiple snow storms were preceded by sub-freezing temperatures that froze the ground and made snow stick hard to pavement, he said. Vehicle traffic compressed each new snow layer to form thick ice impossible in some places for city plows to scrape clean without damaging pavement. Sims said persistent freezing temperatures also made it impossible to pre-treat roads with road salt and brine spray to prevent ice forming.

“Everywhere it was stuck down, you go to start peeling it up and you’re peeling up asphalt,” Sims said. “So that’s what made this one so challenging.”

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He said the heavy snowfall in the first week of January with comparatively warmer temperatures were more like Nanaimo’s usual winter conditions.

“We were on it and by the time the snow had stopped at 8 or 9 a.m. we had already done the priority one routes and it peeled off beautifully because the ground was warmer,” he said. “That was the first day we saw the ground temperatures above freezing.”

Nanaimo has about 20 pieces of equipment with snowplows, but Sims said they can’t scrape heavy ice buildup from road surfaces. The city called upon contractors with equipment that can deal with ice to help clear side roads and cul-de-sacs, but by Tuesday, Jan. 11, Sims said, there were still side streets and cul-de-sacs – Nanaimo has 800 cul-de-sacs – that hadn’t been cleared.

In a governance and priorities committee meeting Monday, Jan. 10, David Thompson, city manager of roads and traffic services, said Nanaimo has already received more than 100 per cent of snowfall for the entire 2020/2021 snow season.

“During that event, it snowed 12 out of 15 days and that continual snowfall meant that our effort was on the priority one routes … emergency response, transit routes and major transportation corridors,” Thompson said.

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Some of the city’s 64 employees trained to operate snow clearing equipment were away over the holiday season, but 49 came in to run the plows, Thompson said.

As of Thursday, Jan. 13, some sidewalks were still snow-covered partly because plows repeatedly buried them and because the city doesn’t have equipment to clear sidewalks. Bike lanes and trails, such as the E & N Trail and waterfront walkway, however, were cleared because equipment designed for clearing snow from trails had been purchased for parks maintenance.

“All of those routes are good commuter routes, whether pedestrian or cyclist … as a result of building the bike lanes … our parks group bought a couple of new units specifically for trails [that are] a little more heavy duty and able to handle it,” Sims said. “That’s why we saw the bike lanes done … It’s our parks group that focuses on getting our facilities open – getting all the trailways, the Waterfront Walkway, Georgia Greenway – just getting those open to get people moving as best as we can and part of their route was the cycling lanes … The Front Street bike lanes are not restricted to bikes. People can walk along there.”

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Sims said the public needs to be prepared for winter conditions by installing snow tires on their vehicles and carrying a snow shovel and extra clothes in their cars in the event they become stuck in snow. But the city is also shifting its planning to better prepare for similar future winter conditions more often seen in the Kootenays or Ontario, which could mean revamping its playbook to deal with such conditions. It is also looking at how it communicates with the public – who sent in a “remarkably high” number of complaints – and to better explain the extreme and unusual circumstances it was dealing with.

“We realize that our messaging about ‘We’re doing the best we can,’ wasn’t landing well and so we shifted our messaging to say, ‘Thanks for your patience while we work through this,’” Sims said. “Even though we were … going flat out, that doesn’t help somebody who’s stuck in the snow. So, we were just really trying to shift our message to thanking the public and acknowledging that they were frustrated.”
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Chris Bush

About the Author: Chris Bush

As a photographer/reporter with the Nanaimo News Bulletin since 1998.
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