By Doug Hallett
If residents are frustrated by the state of the sidewalks these day, so is the city.
“We are doing the best we can with the equipment, the science and the resources that we have,” said city general manager of public works Rod Keller.
But he admits the situation is worse than usual, especially sidewalks in the older parts of the city where sidewalks are more often shaded by houses and big The problem started with the ice storm on Dec. 22. Even unusual attempts by the city since then to improve the situation have had only limited success, Keller said on Wednesday.
The result is a lot of sidewalks covered by a thick layer of treacherous ice in front of most houses on a given street. With some snow and colder weather on the way this week, the sidewalk situation could easily get worse before it gets better.
During last weekend’s thaw, city crews tried spreading a 50-50 mix of salt and sand on some sidewalks. However, “we have had limited success with that,” Keller observed in an interview.
Normally, the sand grit that is spread on sidewalks by the city’s sidewalk plows is 95% sand and 5% salt. The salt is added to keep the sand from clumping, he said.
There are two main reasons the city doesn’t usually put much salt in the mixture it applies to sidewalks, Keller said. One is cost. The other is that salt doesn’t work on sidewalks anywhere near as well as it does on roads.
“Salt works really well on roads, where there is a lot of movement” over the salt, he said. Cars crush the salt, creating a thin layer that mixes with precipitation to improve driving conditions quickly.
“Sidewalks are just a different challenge, because foot traffic” doesn’t create “the same kinetic energy” as car traffic does on roads, Keller said.
The Dec. 22 ice storm resulted in about 450 calls to the city about downed trees and branches, and some of that wood fell across sidewalks. This resulted in sidewalk snowplows not getting to many stretches of sidewalk, Keller said. Clearing the roads also had a higher priority than sidewalks.
The ice storm was followed by snow on Dec. 28 and 29 and then by a severe cold snap a week later, he said. At that point, the sidewalk snowplows were clearing snow, but couldn’t remove much of the ice below it. The snowplows spread some sand grit while they plowed “to provide some traction.”
Sidewalk snowplows are not as heavy as road plows. They don’t exert much downward pressure, so it’s hard for them to get ice off the sidewalks that “is already bound to the concrete,” he said.
“It is a challenge and we are doing the best we can, with the systems we have, to get on it,” he summed up.
Unlike places such as Kitchener, Guelph doesn’t have a bylaw obligating its residents to clear the sidewalks in front of their property. Proposals to end sidewalk plowing by the city in front of private property have been “consistently voted down” by council, most recently during 2013 budget discussions, Keller noted.
City hall has been urging residents to voluntarily take responsibility, using the slogan “Be nice, treat the ice,” he said.
Last weekend’s thaw would have been a great opportunity for people to do this, especially using an ice chopper.
This winter is the second one where city hall has actively promoted the idea of residents using the city’s sand grit to create traction on the sidewalks in front of their property.
This sand grit – the same mix that city crews apply – can be taken free of charge at any time of day from a large pile of it at the city’s operations yard on Municipal Street. It has been “going like hotcakes,” Keller said. It’s available at 50 Municipal St., next to the former bus barn garages.
People can also take this sand grit from the city’s boxes found next to many streets, although this isn’t encouraged by city hall. It can create inefficiencies for city crews that use the sand grit in the boxes if they find the boxes empty and have to make a detour to get it elsewhere, Keller said.
By Doug Hallett