By ROSALYN ROY
– with files from René J. Roy
PORT AUX BASQUES – After an unseasonably warm start, winter finally arrived in early February and packing its usual wallop. In addition to the high winds and a power outage, plows hit the streets to tackle the first serious snowfall to hit the region.
Plowing even a relatively smaller town can be a headache for municipalities and residents alike. Along with the financial expenditure, there’s also a cost in time and inconvenience.
On-street parking is prohibited in Port aux Basques from Dec. 31 to Apr. 1, and is typically enforced from midnight until 8:00 a.m. and within the 12 hour window following a storm. Clearing the streets during the wee hours when people are sleeping is done for safety reasons according to Town Manager Leon MacIsaac.
“Snowclearing is typically completed after business hours to reduce interaction between vehicles and heavy equipment. Drivers are not typically aware that they are required to keep a safe distance from heavy equipment which requires larger sightlines to safely operate. Vehicles often get too close to equipment when operating which increases the risk of an accident,” wrote MacIsaac in response to e-mail inquiries.
That can be a hassle for those who don’t have a driveway or access to an off-street private parking spot. MacIsaac says that Port aux Basques is aware of this difficulty for some residents.
“There are a limited number of streets where it may be impossible to keep the vehicles completely off the road. In these circumstances allowances may be made depending on the conditions and each is addressed accordingly,” wrote MacIsaac.
However the town doesn’t have a public parking lot, so the responsibility to source a spot remains with the vehicle owner. Those who can’t find one may find their vehicle has been ticketed or even towed, although towing is a last resort after the owner has ignored the initial ticket and continues to park illegally. The town does not set the fees for the towing, noted MacIsaac.
“The cost to the owner of the vehicle would be the towing fee from the applicable towing company and any fees that company may charge for having it stored on their property. The vehicle would not be released until documentation is provided that all applicable fees have been paid.”
Snow clearing cost Port aux Basques taxpayers a bit in excess of $425,000 according to the 2019 budget figures.
MacIsaac says that part of dealing with snow removal is figuring out where to put it.
“Due to the limited availability of snow dumping areas the process to complete all aspects is time consuming,” wrote MacIsaac.
Like larger metropolitan areas, Port aux Basques tends to prioritize its main traffic thoroughfares before clearing more residential streets. Cul-de-sacs or dead end streets tend to be lower on the list, and after that, snowplow operators will return to widen the streets or push back more of the snow.
To a large extent that strategy makes sense. Emergency services must be able to respond in the event of an emergency. But what about those without vehicles, or who have mobility issue?
“It would not be functional or practical to clear sidewalks until this process is completed,” explained MacIsaac. “Sidewalks in the area of schools are given priority for children walking to school and then the downtown pedestrian-thoroughfare areas to enable access.”
MacIsaac says the town does understand the importance of keeping the sidewalks cleared.
“Proving safe and accessible sidewalks have taken a higher priority but also comes at a very high cost. Unfortunately, sidewalks can not be made passable until the streets are fully cleared as it would only duplicate snow clearing efforts and make road clearing impractical,” wrote MacIsaac.
When sidewalks are not cleared, residents have no alternative but to walk alongside the snow covered roads just to get to the grocery store or doctor’s office for example. That practice has proven hazardous elsewhere within the province.
In a two week span in early Jan. 2020, one pedestrian was killed and eight others were injured in St. John’s after being struck by vehicles. In response the city, which has a snow clearing budget in excess of $18 million, pledged to do a better job of clearing its sidewalks.
One advantage of a larger city budget is purchasing equipment that is dedicated to just keeping the sidewalks accessible. For Port aux Basques, such an expenditure would almost double the annual cost of snow removal.
“A sidewalk plow costs approximately $150,000 per unit and are a high maintenance item. The typical rule of thumb is to have a second unit available in the event the original unit breaks down, which does happen when unknown objects (such as garbage nets, bags, etc.) are left out and become entangled in the chute/auger. This can lead to extended down time,” noted MacIsaac. “A municipality would need to factor approximately $300,000 for units that would be stationary for a large part of the year.”
MacIsaac also pointed out that Bobcats and Skidsteers are not practical for snow clearing sidewalks.
While Port aux Basques has its own staff to clear sidewalks, sometimes outside contractors may be called in to help, usually after an onslaught of storms that result in significant snowfall accumulation.
Unlike other provinces, Newfoundland and Labrador does not have a law requiring home and property owners to keep their sidewalks cleared of snow. Both the province of Ontario and the City of Toronto have laws in place requiring property owners to keep their sidewalks in front of their buildings free of snow and ice.
“I do know that it’s a topic that has come up frequently during conferences over the years but has not been enacted to date,” said MacIsaac.
But that bylaw doesn’t always work either. Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) tried it for a few years but ultimately repealed the bylaw.
“Approximately six years ago, HRM removed that bylaw and took over that component again with residents/businesses in affected areas charged a higher tax rate. HRM residents have complained the service is not as dependable when property owners had cleared it themselves,” wrote MacIsaac. “I expect a reinstatement of the bylaw may come up in the future.”
Enacting a similar law here would require provincial approval. In addition, it would require hiring an enforcement officer, which the town also cannot afford.
Mayor John Spencer observed that what is practical elsewhere doesn’t necessarily work for smaller Newfoundland towns. When he lived out west, Spencer chose to pay a private contractor to clear his access.
“In Moose Jaw and Saskatoon our vehicle would be lost in the ruts. You want to see the damage done hitting a sidewalk popping out of a rut. The policy in Saskatchewan is not practical here unless we substitute our vehicles for skidoos.”