Thunder Bay – A Northern City?

Storm impact continues
Streets and Sidewalks across downtown Fort William Business District are tough to walk.

THUNDER BAY – Thunder Bay is a northern city. Here in Northwestern Ontario, dealing with winter is second nature. Or at least it should be. The winter storm that swept through the city yesterday dumped upwards of thirty centimetres of snow on the city. Many services across the city were shut down.

Road conditions were at a point where the Thunder Bay Police Service were asking drivers to stay off the roads.

As a city where snowfalls are normal, the real issue should be how prepared the City of Thunder Bay was for the storm. After all, this wasn’t our city’s first winter rodeo.

Preparation for a storm is key. The storm warnings for Friday’s snow storm were coming twenty-four hours ahead of the weather system. Streets and sidewalks in the city were slippery, and in many cases, especially in the downtown cores were left unploughed.

When Thunder Bay Transit suspended service, riders in many cases were given as much notice as possible, but some might have been left without a way home.

As a northern city, the question should be asked, why Thunder Bay Transit buses are not able to make it around the city during a snowstorm? The snowfall amount of 30 centimetres might sound like a lot. Back in the day when snow was measured in inches, Thunder Bay received a foot of snow.

Are Thunder Bay Transit buses outfitted with winter tires? If not, why not? Even if just for some of the routes that have hills to climb.

On February 13, 2013, the City of New York was hit with a blizzard that dumped 11.2 inches of snow on the city.

When that storm hit New York, the Department of Transportation announced that alternate side parking regulations were suspended city-wide to facilitate snow removal.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg prepared residents for the storm with all hands on deck approach. City officials made sure to get roadways ready. More than 2,200 vehicles ploughed and salted streets across the city overnight. Every major thoroughfare was cleared. Most at least once. Even most secondary streets were cleared and prepared. That continued right through the storm.

New York City has a plan in place for all types of natural situations. So does the City of Thunder Bay.

A winter storm with over twenty-four hours of notice should not have caught anyone by surprise. However in Thunder Bay, in sharp contrast to New York City; from all reports, streets and sidewalks were left unprepared.

On Friday morning, once clearing started, there was a coat of ice exposed to freeze and make roads increasingly slippery. At 06:00 AM sidewalks at City Hall were being cleared. The sidewalk plough then left and took off down May Street heading north, leaving the downtown sidewalks covered in drifts of snow.

Street Sign covered in snow
Street sign on the corner of Dease and Vickers almost completely covered in snow-Winter Storm Photo By: Nathan Ogden

Sometimes it seems Thunder Bay is far more reactive than proactive. This appears to have been another case of that approach.

It is not like this was the first ever snowstorm to hit our city. However, the way that the streets were prepared and cleared made it appear like it was.

Secondary Road
Approximately 6 inches of snow on Dease street- Winter storm Photo By Nathan Ogden

A few years ago, a major storm basically shut the city down. Transit suspended service because workers could not get into work. Roads were cleared only once massive amounts of snow had fallen.

Snow Storm April 19 2013
Grader clearing snow on Justice Lane Friday, April 19 06:00EDT

A pretty sharp contrast to New York which is not a northern city, but seems to prepare far better. Thunder Bay residents have laughed at Toronto where a few centimetres of snow has often put the city into crisis mode. The management of the storm response Friday was not the best, and not what Thunder Bay deserves.

City workers can work as hard as possible, but it is the plan they are assigned that makes or breaks the results. City Administration cannot control the weather. Their responsibility, however, is in proper preparation and response.

Darrell Matson is Thunder Bay’s  General Manager – Infrastructure & Operations. Matson is paid $166,025.27 annually.  Thunder Bay City Manager Tim Commisso is tasked overall with the responsibility for how the city runs. Administration reports to the Council, who are elected to represent the citizens. Tim Commisso was paid $207,108 in salary in 2011, and $227,711.04 in 2012. He received a raise in pay of almost ten percent in the past year.

They take on the responsibility for ensuring that the City of Thunder Bay runs smoothly. For the wages being paid, the proverbial buck stops at their desks.

Some might not think it is fair to question City Administration. It certainly is fair.

Thunder Bay
The aftermath of the storm – Sidewalks remain unploughed – Photo by Derek Silver

No one should be attacking the individuals. However, it is an open game to ask for accountability and ask how come New York can do a much better job than Thunder Bay. The City of Thunder Bay motto is “Superior by Nature”. Well on Friday, our city was not superior, it was slippery and dangerous.

As a northern city, where we experience winter, we should be far better prepared.

Yesterday afternoon, along Victoria Ave East, a lady trying to navigate the sidewalk with her walker was struggling along the unploughed sidewalk. Because the sidewalk had not been ploughed in the morning hours, the surface was very uneven and icy. The lady was struggling to make her way home.

A walk along our downtown streets will see hazards that appear to be ignored. On the south side of the Victoriaville Parkade, years of pigeon droppings have been allowed to gather.

Under the bridge to the Fort William waterfront, pigeon droppings are up to four inches deep. Lights are out in the pedestrian walkway and have been out for almost a year.

Bringing those facts to the attention of city officials doesn’t result in action. It almost makes one question the degree of real care and concern that some at City Hall has for the city.

A report of a transit driver smoking cigarettes in a transit bus ends up going through five levels of supervisors before an investigation can be started.

Does it sound like there is a thicker level of added bureaucracy in the administration that senior managers could be trimming? Perhaps something that the Council and the Mayor should be examining.

Downtown streets in our city are left with huge snowbanks. As spring has arrived, they have turned to icy and slippery slopes that present a real liability to the City of Thunder Bay. A passenger trying to get out of a vehicle, or a driver attempting to climb the ice hill to plug the parking meter could easily sprain or fracture an ankle.

The City of Thunder Bay would be liable for the injury. The word from city officials is that it costs too much to clear the snowbanks. The contrast to what a lawsuit would cost the city would pale in comparison.

Taking Pride in our Thunder Bay

This pattern appears to duplicate what happened last May as Thunder Bay was under heavy rainfall warnings.

The Lakehead Regional Conservation Authority had issued Flood Warnings.

It can be asked what City Administration officials did in preparation. The massive storm that impacted the Sewage Treatment plant and caused the failure of the pumps came to a plant that was unmanned. Perhaps having staff on site might not have prevented the plant from being overwhelmed, but Thunder Bay will never know.

In the downtown Fort William business district, pedestrians were abandoned. Sidewalks around City Hall were cleared on Friday morning. That was great for transit riders getting off at the City Hall bus stops.

The snow clearing plan, however, didn’t appear to consider that other than heading to City Hall, downtown transit users should not have to walk on the road. Friday, that was the best option, but it was very dangerous.

As a northern city, we can, and we must do much better.

James Murray