Surrey hasn’t seen snow yet this year “which is awesome,” chuckled Ray Kerr, the city’s snow removal boss, or manager of engineering operations as he’s more formally known.
But the team is armed with 63 pieces of winter maintenance equipment, ready to go at a moment’s notice, and (literally) tonnes of salt.
“We still have a facility that holds 17,000 tonnes of salt,” said Kerr, noting it’s all stored in a shed that was built following a particularly dreadful winter in 2010. “We have a full inventory as we speak. We’re ready to go.”
But there’s not much snow in the forecast this winter.
“It’s nice to get blessed with this the odd year,” said Kerr.
“The forecast is generally what we deem an average winter, which is typically three snow events. Some years, there’s a lot of ice and snow, it really varies. We do celebrate quite a bit, when we’re heading into December and at this point, there’s no snow.”
This year is nothing like the record-breaking snow season two years ago, which saw a 44-day cold snap from Dec. 4, 2016 to Jan. 16, 2017, in which temperatures in Surrey were at or below zero degrees Celsius. That was the longest duration of freezing temperatures since 1984 – and more snow fell in the city after that.
People were ice skating on city streets.
Near the end of that winter, city crews had to resort to a salt-and-sand mix, rationing to ensure salt didn’t run out.
While the city uses roughly 8,000 tonnes of salt in a “typical” winter, it used more than 20,000 that year and was one of – if not the only – city that didn’t run out of salt in the region.
“I know it’s coming, sooner or later,” said Kerr of this season’s snowfall. “Hopefully it happens prior to Christmastime. Staff put in a ton of time as it is, with respect to winter maintenance. If fortunate enough, they won’t have to do it on Christmas Day. That’s always my hope, so people can spend Christmas morning with family.”
Kerr pointed residents’ attention to an updated city website with “a lot more information with respect to how and why we do what we do.”
And, the city has launched an online tool allowing people to track Surrey’s snow plows online.
It’s not in live time, but Kerr said it’s “pretty close.”
“There’s a bit of a delay but they can take a look at the routes that have been done, and within what time frame. It’s fantastic. It’s called 511,” he added.
See it for yourself at 511portal.com/surrey, AKA Surrey Plow Tracker.
Meantime, a pilot project launched last year to clear sidewalks in City Centre is continuing this winter.
“We had picked up a multi-purpose piece of equipment. It can plow, so it can be used to plow sidewalks. It also has pressure washing capabilities,” said Kerr, noting the machine can also drop salt. “My hope is following this winter, I should have enough of a business case to order a couple more. From what I’ve seen so far it’s a great piece of equipment.”
This winter, it will be out and about clearing snow (whenever it arrives) from sidewalks and walkways in City Centre.
“It was assigned to that area near SkyTrain and the university. There’s major mainstream pedestrian walkways, that’s why we put it there.”
Kerr laughed as he said the city would likely never get to the point where they’ll remove snow from all city sidewalks, which is the responsibility of the adjacent property owner, as per city bylaw.
That’d be a lot of sidewalks, given Surrey’s streets alone are a whopping 4,500 lane kilometres.
“Roads are our top priority,” said Kerr. “We still base our winter operations on getting priority one or two roads dealt with quickly.”
A few years ago, Surrey started using liquid salt brine in addition to traditional road salt.
As Kerr explained it, the brine “puts a skim coat on the pavement,” making it difficult for ice to form. And, it makes snow easier to plow.
“It’s absolutely fantastic, it just melts the snow away. So if we have weather that’s cold and dry, we can put brine down. But if it’s wet, then you don’t have that opportunity.”
Kerr had this reminder for residents, for when the snow begins to fall: “Please get out, shovel the sidewalks and look to your neighbour and help them. Especially if you have an elderly couple living beside you, help them as well. And be patient. I think we do a tremendous job… but we can’t be everywhere at once.”
The city has budgeted $3.7 million for snow removal this year.
How does Surrey prioritize which roads to plow?
The City of Surrey doesn’t typically deal with residential road clearing because the weather usually warms up or rain will melt the snow.
When snow falls, Surrey splits its roads into three priority groups to ensure major routes get cleared first.
There are “first-priority” roads in the city – key arteries that are used by large numbers of drivers. They include main roads, bus routes and roads with steep hills. Roads fronting and/or leading to schools and long-term care facilities are also included.
“Second-priority” roads are remaining arterial and collector routes. These include local connector roads in residential areas.
But if winter weather returns, crews revert back to focusing on first priority roads.
To reach the City of Surrey’s service request line, call 604-591-4152. It’s open Monday to Friday (excluding statutory holidays) from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. After hours, the line switches to the fire base to respond to emergencies.