Toronto's snow-removal fleet will look different this winter as 33 cement trucks with plow blades mounted to the front will clear some city streets.
But the plan, which has not been made public until now, has caught some safe street advocates and councillors off-guard, leaving them urging city staff to adopt additional measures to ensure pedestrian safety.
In what appears to be a first for Toronto, city staff confirm that the converted cement trucks will account for a small portion of the city's overall 1,100-vehicle snow clearing fleet (made up largely of vehicles operated by private contractors). Staff say the trucks are an "industry-acceptable vehicle" that could help the city save money.
"Using this vehicle to provide winter maintenance is an innovative way to ensure vehicles that generally would be idle during winter months continue to be used year-round, offering potential cost savings while meeting the city's winter maintenance service levels to plow arterial roads," staff said in a statement.
But Friends and Families for Safe Streets (FFSS), a road safety advocacy group, said it is concerned about the addition of the large vehicles to the city's snow clearing fleet, even if their use is restricted to arterial roadways.
In recent years, cement trucks have been involved in a number of fatal collisions with pedestrians in Toronto. Strong safety measures are required if the city is going to use the vehicles this winter, FFSS said.
"These vehicles have such a history of preventable death for the innocent people around them," spokesperson Jessica Spieker told CBC Toronto. "That's because with the design of the cab, the drivers are very high up, and they have enormous blind zones all around them."
'Effective' additional safety measures required: advocate
Spieker said the city should require the vehicles to use side-guards to prevent pedestrians from accidentally being pulled beneath the wheels. Two people should crew each vehicle, she added, with one acting as a spotter in the passenger seat of the cab.
"I would want to see some very effective additional safety measures added to make sure that this fleet of cement mixers plowing streets does not cause additional preventable tragedy and anguish and heartbreak," she said.
Coun. Gord Perks said as council debated accountability measures related to snow clearing last year, they focused on outcomes and were not provided details on the vehicles. It had not occurred to many to ask for stipulations about equipment types, he added.
"I do think the public service owes the public clear answers on what standards they're insisting on to make sure these vehicles are not going to be putting anybody at risk," he said.
City staff did not disclose to councillors that some of the winning contractors would be using cement trucks as opposed to traditional plows when council voted to award multi-year contracts. When asked why, a spokesperson said: "This level of detail was not required by city council."
Perks added that the range of vehicles used to clear snow in the city varied wildly in the early days after the service was privatized by former mayor Mel Lastman. And that has not always contributed to great results, he said.
"I remember there being fleets of just anything you could find, and they would just bolt a plow on the front of it. It was truly bizarre, like some kind of weird, dystopian movie," he said.
"But you've seen more standardization in the contracts over the years. I have always thought this should be a publicly-delivered service with the highest quality of vehicles and supervision."
A spokesperson for John Tory said the mayor has spoken with city staff and wants "every possible piece of equipment" the city can use on the roads providing snow clearing services.
"Mayor Tory expects City staff to take every safety precaution possible for all of the vehicles in the fleet," Lawvin Hadisi said in a statement.
"If there are any additional safety measures required beyond those already deployed on all large snow clearing vehicles, they will be implemented."
It's not clear how widely cement trucks are used as snow plows.
Initially, city staff said the City of New York used the vehicles, but after CBC Toronto confirmed that was incorrect, a spokesperson subsequently revised that statement to say the State of New Jersey has used the vehicles on its highways. City staff did not point to any Canadian jurisdiction where cement trucks are used as plows.
Ontario's Ministry of Transportation says while it uses a variety of vehicles to clear roads and highways across the province, it does not use cement trucks.
Staff could not say if companies could acquire vehicles
The concrete truck in the picture is from Viola, a major asphalt company that's headquartered in Markham, where the image was taken by an industry source and shared with CBC Toronto.
Corporate records obtained by CBC Toronto show Viola and Infrastructure Management, one of the companies that won snow-clearing contracts with the city, are linked.
Even if the companies weren't linked, the winning firms are allowed to subcontract out 25 per cent of the work.
City staff did not dispute the plow in the image could be used. Viola declined a request for comment.
Last December, CBC Toronto reported on a controversial contract that saw three companies win the right to clear snow in the city for the next decade. One of the key questions that went unanswered by city staff at the time was whether or not the companies would be able to acquire enough snow plows to get the job done.
By June, CBC News asked, based on a tip from one industry source, if the winning companies could use plows mounted to concrete trucks.
The city, replying by email, didn't deny that, saying instead: "The city is working with the vendors where the global supply chain issue has impacted equipment procurement. The City will ensure that all equipment will meet the requirements of the contract and service levels as a bid by the vendor."
Neither the city nor Tory's office would confirm how many of the 1,100 pieces of snow-removal equipment are ready to go at this time.