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No business like snow business

The day I interviewed city staff about the city’s snow plowing network just happened to be the same day we were hit with the first major snowstorm of the winter.
A transaxle snowplow, the heart of the city’s snow-removal fleet, is loaded with salt and sand before it leaves the city’s Frobisher depot Dec. 21 as the first major snow storm picks up in early afternoon. Photo by Marg Seregelyi.

The day I interviewed city staff about the city’s snow plowing network just happened to be the same day we were hit with the first major snowstorm of the winter.

So, as I made my way to the city’s Frobisher depot on the Falconbridge Highway, Greater Sudbury snowplows were already rumbling past me, like tanks headed to the frontlines. The Dec. 20-21 storm dumped about 30 cm of snow, and by early afternoon, it was already nearing the eight-centimetre threshold at which crews are fully mobilized.

The impressive transaxle, multi-function plows are the heart of the city’s fleet, able to plow, sand and salt city streets in any weather. But they are just one of a host of vehicles deployed every time there’s a major storm, with the goal of keeping the city operational through a Northern Ontario winter.

“You brought a storm with you,” joked Randy Halverson, the city’s manager of operations in the Infrastructure Services department, as I arrived in his office at Frobisher.

If only I had that power. I’ve been intrigued for years at how the city manages to clear Greater Sudbury’s vast network of roads in winter. While there are always plenty of complaints during and after storms about areas not plowed or slippery conditions, the task of clearing the city’s 3,600 lane kilometres of roads is a huge challenge, to say the least.

To put it in perspective, you can fit more than a dozen southern Ontario municipalities within the boundaries of Greater Sudbury, including Toronto. Laid in a straight line, we have enough roads to get all the way to El Paso, Texas. We spend $15 million a year on winter roads maintenance, although global warming has meant the department has come in under budget for the last few years.

How do they do it? Halverson says it takes a mix of technological tools and detailed planning. First off, they break down the roads into classes. The most critical are Class 1-3, which takes up 800 km of Greater Sudbury’s roads.

They’re the most heavily used by drivers, and include mix of main thoroughfares, such as The Kingway and Lasalle Boulevard.

“In a storm, we would send out 22 plows onto the Class 1-3 network,” Halverson says. “With the snow falling right now, we’re just ramping up right now to send the plows out to the Class 1-3 roads. That’s our first line of attack.”

Once total snowfall reaches eight centimetres, he says they send out another 37 pieces of snow-removal equipment, including smaller plows, sidewalk plows, 4x4 trucks and loaders.

The vehicles are kept in five depots. The city is broken down into five zones, each with a similar number of roads. The depots are located in strategic areas, so the machines can be rolled out as efficiently as possible.

Once snowfall passes the eight-cm threshold, 59 plows and other vehicles are dispatched to begin plowing “beats.” Each driver – unionized city staffers, topped up with contractors – has a beat, or a defined area to plow. From start to finish, each beat takes 24 hours to complete.

And those beats include the Class 4-6 roads, 2,800 lane km of sidestreets, rural roads and subdivisions that handle less traffic and have lower speed limits.

“In addition to that, we would also deploy an additional 20 sidewalk plows at that eight-cm threshold,” Halverson says.

Each of the big plows carries a full load of salt and pickled sand, which is sand mixed with five per cent of salt to keep it from clumping and making it easier to spread.

As a result of a review conducted six years ago to reduce the impact – and amount – of salt used to keep roads clear, only Class 1-3 roads are salted. The remaining roads only receive pickled sand. And when the temperature drops below -12 C, only sand is used, because salt won’t melt snow when it’s that cold.

Even so, 25,000 metric tonnes of salt is spread on the roads every year, as well as 60,000 metric tonnes of sand.

“We buy the sand from local vendors. It’s a screened product,” Halverson says. “They take sand out of banks, they run it through screens to reduce it to a certain particle size. We provide them the salt, and they do the mixing for us” to create the pickled sand.

And what about the salt?

“We’re bringing salt in from Sifto now,” Halverson says. “It’s a new tender.”

“But it’s not the same salt you put on fries,” jokes David Shelsted, the city’s director of roads and transportation.

Unlike sand, which is easy to store, salt is kept in five salt domes. 

“And as our stocks get depleted, we bring in more salt,” Shelsted says. “So we have continuous shipments throughout the winter.”

Halverson says once the winter control period begins Nov.1, the department’s 115 unionized staff is dedicated to snow removal. They work shifts that start either at noon or midnight. They work eight hours, but that will be extended in the event of a storm, of which they plan for 33 each winter.

The winter control period runs until the end of April, so it includes the spring melt.

“Then they have to deal with drainage issues, which are fast and furious at that time,” Halverson said.

Until then, Shelsted says snowplow drivers are able to clear the city’s entire road network in a day, an impressive feat.

“One of the stats we’ve been using lately is 3,600 lane kilometres can take you from Greater Sudbury to El Paso, Texas,” he says, repeating the analogy. “And so we plow that entire distance in 24 hours.”

Part 2: the technological tools that make it possible.