A tale of two cities

Sandy Hickman believes St. John’s could well be the most challenging city in the world when it comes to snowclearing.

Snow storms are frequent. The snow often thaws and freezes again. The downtown is full of narrow streets at odd angles and steep grades. And the population is spread out over a meandering maze of residential neighbourhoods.

“St. John’s is not the same as any other city, perhaps, in the world” he said in an interview last week. “You cannot compare to any other city in Canada, for sure.”

That’s the kind of talk that gets people rankled. Don’t whine about how hard it is, they say. Just fix it.

Hickman’s answer? We are.

The at-large councilor oversees public works, and says in the past 10 years, street plowing has gone from one permanent shift to two.

In that time, sidewalk clearing has gone from zero shifts to three.

“There’s no question sidewalks have become a higher priority in the last six or seven years. It is so much better than it used to be it’s not even funny, but it’s not good enough and we know that and we know that it will continue to improve over time.”

While January saw barely a speck of snow, February has more than made up for it. There’ve been at least three significant snowfalls. And when you get two quick dumps with a torrent of rain in between — as a week ago — you have to use a snowblower.

“They move much slower, and it really beats up the equipment because it’s so rock hard.”

Hickman says while the past couple of weeks has been difficult, things may look better next winter.

That’s because they’ve boosted the sidewalk budget again.

“We’re adding six new sidewalk plows, with money for attachments (snowblowers), and they are being added next winter.”

Even with the new equipment, the city has to prioritize sidewalks as it does streets.

The main emergency routes come first. Then commercial roads, since people need to get to work and to pick up food and supplies.

“We have to look at the big picture, and we have to consider things such as Torbay Road, Kenmount Road, Topsail Road — all those roads that have commercial on both sides, and they’re wide roads so you have to do both sides very quickly.”

Deciding which streets are pedestrian heavy can be a moving target, and Hickman says he welcomes complaints because they can help with decision-making.

“We appreciate the feedback from residents. I know it’s based on frustration, but it’s very helpful and it encourages our staff to think outside the box and start thinking a little differently,” he said.

Ann Malone wishes someone had thought differently about her stretch of sidewalk. Even though she’s on a Priority 1 street, snow banks still blocked her access for more than a week following Valentine’s Day.

“This month alone, I have spent close to $500 getting taxis because I have no other way of getting around.”

Malone, a former council candidate who’s visually impaired, hasn’t been able to work her guide dog since early February.

Malone primarily ran on a platform of accessibility, but walkability has become a major cause for many of the city’s younger generation who say the council mindset has been car-centric for too long.

“A sidewalk is a threshold into society,” Malone said. “Every time that somebody has to purchase food, they have to mobilize themselves by foot or by public transport.”

And she says a number of recent events suggest the city is still discriminating against its more vulnerable residents.

The outcry over lack of warming shelters, and the attempt to remove a bus shelter outside The Gathering Place that was being occupied by a homeless person, are all related.

“All these things are connected. None of them is a silo,” she said.

“The approach has to change.”

Meanwhile, Hickman pleads for patience.

Trucks now have to dump snow at Robin Hood Bay instead of the harbour, which takes longer. Recruiting and training new staff can also slow things down.

“We regard it as a high priority and we have been addressing it, and I know that will continue. We have incrementally increased staffing and equipment and budget over he past four or five years.”

Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram