Budgets, bridges and tires — why Metro Vancouver seems to struggle with 6 inches of snow
Another snow day in Metro Vancouver, another day where the rest of Canada enjoys our region's issues with six inches of snow.
How many millions of dollars do major Canadian cities budget each year for snow removal?
For someone stuck in traffic for eight hours because of the snow, the schadenfreude from east of the Rockies may not be taken well.
But why does southwest B.C. seemingly struggle with what much of the country manages with more ease?
Here are a few of the primary factors.
In many urban areas, the budget for snow clearing can take up whole percentages of the entire city budget.
In southwest B.C., it can be a rounding error.
Vancouver and Surrey both budget around $4 million a year for snow removal, while everywhere else in Metro Vancouver is under a million dollars. But in every other major Canadian city, the figure is much higher, topped out by Montreal at $187 million last year.
When major snowstorms hit, municipalities spend money beyond the budget as necessary to deal with the crisis. At the same time, it does mean the resources and dedicated staffing towards snow removal in southwest B.C. is much more limited.
"We do not put the amount of investment that Montreal does because we do not see snow all year," said New Westminster Mayor Patrick Johnstone, who said it was a question of municipal tradeoffs.
"Every year, people ask for more when the snow falls and then question why budgets go up when budget time happens a few months later."
Bridges and jurisdictions
Johnstone said that after a hectic night, New Westminster was able to get crews out to do road cleaning, and there were no major issues outside of a few abandoned vehicles.
But he pointed out that the biggest road problems on Tuesday night stemmed from areas outside municipal control.
"It was really more a situation of bridges that are connecting our communities that end up getting blocked up. And once those bridges closed, people had nowhere else to go," he said.
Metro Vancouver has a complex web of bridges of various lengths going between municipalities, and in many places, there are few alternatives if one is significantly backed up. And while maintenance of the streets feeding into them falls under city jurisdiction, highways and bridges themselves — including the Alex Fraser Bridge, which was closed for five hours — fall mostly to the provincial government.
"Those inter-jurisdictional bridges are the ones where we have seen the problems," said Vancouver Coun. Adriane Carr, who praised her city's response.
"That's why we ended up with so many people basically spending the night in New Westminster and their cars. So I don't know how we get around that."
The Ministry of Transportation says it is reviewing its response to Tuesday's storm.
Snow tires and responsibility
At the same time, some of the problems come down to individual behaviour.
A 2021 survey commissioned by the Tire and Rubber Association of Canada found only 57 per cent of British Columbians owned snow tires, compared to the Canadian average of 76 per cent.
(The online survey of 1,521 drivers was conducted by Leger, with a margin of error of +/-2.5%, 19 times out of 20)
"And it's not so much with all of B.C., it's really with the Lower Mainland because typically people can get by," said Carr.
"But I'm really imploring the public to take advice that the city is giving, which is if there's a forecast for snow … don't take your car."
It was a call that Johnstone echoed.
"I just hope that people are as prepared as they can possibly be and make hard choices about whether they actually need to travel when the forecast is for icy and snowy conditions," he said. Because it is really challenging for us to keep up."