On September 24th I wrote a post sharing my thoughts on where we were headed on the calcium chloride and winter road/sidewalk maintenance discussion. In that post I shared a motion I put forward which would stop the use of calcium chloride on city roads this winter and ask our Administration to provide a report in June 2020 detailing enhancements or additional that can be made to achieve bare pavement without the use of salt, calcium chloride, and sand. That motion was amended earlier today by Councillor Tim Cartmell to adjust the second point so that it would read, “provide a report in June 2020 detailing enhancements or additional measures that can be made to achieve a safe road surface, which could include bare pavement without the use of salt, calcium chloride, and sand.” The amended motion was approved by Council in a 7-6 vote.
I want to share a quick history of why we were even debating this. Prior to the 2017/18 winter, I would regularly get asked why we were not able to clear our streets as well as the Province was on the Henday or one of many Eastern Canadian cities (ex: Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal). That caused our City Administration to research the best practices in other cities to see what we can learn and try on our own streets. A common theme from many of those cities emerged, they use calcium chloride as an anti-icing solution along with a variety of other solutions including sodium chloride, sand, and plowing.
I’m glad that we tried using calcium chloride as an anti-icing solution. In general, I’m happy when our city staff look to other cities to see what actions they are taking and try out those solutions in our city. I also think we should be encouraging our City staff to try out new solutions to address challenges as we should always be looking for better ways to provide services and programs in our city.
Before I share some of the reasons I supported discontinuing the use of calcium chloride on our city streets, I feel it is important to comment on how this discussion went. This debate was one of the more frustrating debates I’ve been a part of because this is one of the few times that it felt like facts didn’t matter. Here are just a few of the facts that I felt were missing from the debate:
- The City of Edmonton has been using calcium chloride for decades. The main difference is that prior to the 2017/18 winter, we used it exclusively to pre-wet sand/salt mixture so it would better stick to the road. For the 2017/18 and 2018/19 winter we also used calcium chloride as an anti-icing solution.
- Over 90% of Canadian cities use calcium chloride and over 98% use sodium chloride. With the exception of the 2017/18 winter, the City of Calgary has regularly been using far more calcium chloride than we have been using. They also use liquid sodium chloride which does not have a corrosion inhibitor – Edmonton has not used sodium chloride in liquid form.
- The Province of Alberta has also been using calcium chloride on the Henday for many years. While they have a different snow clearing routine, that doesn’t negate the fact that calcium chloride is used regularly on that road. The total volume used on the Henday last year was over 1,000,000 litres compared to the just over 600,000 litres used across the entire City of Edmonton.
- Different tools (ex: sand, sodium chloride, calcium chloride) each serve a different purpose. We can’t simply replace one tool with another because they are effective in different environmental conditions. For example, sodium chloride is often used when there is freezing rain as the other tools are less effective.
- Sand often gave us the illusion of safety. When applied on a road where travel speeds are 50km/h or greater, it can take only 8-13 vehicles driving over sand to push the majority of it to the side or middle of the road.
As mentioned, those are just a few of the facts that were not regularly discussed and that created a very divisive debate where people relied far more on anecdotal evidence than actual research.
Those facts were the reason I supported the pilot over the last two years. The status quo was not providing the quality of service that people expected and we needed to try something else. The piloting of calcium chloride as an anti-icing agent also allowed us to improve the overall service without increasing our snow removal budget. But what the pilot also allowed for was a detailed analysis on the impacts of this solution on other infrastructure (ex: roads, cars, etc.) and then allowed us to look at the trade-offs.
As noted above, using calcium chloride as an anti-icing solution fills a gap that cannot be met by sodium chloride or sand. Calcium chloride also has a corrosion inhibitor that helps reduce the impact to public and private infrastructure. That is not the case for sodium chloride. We saw a measurable reduction in collisions by using the combination of the different tools available to City staff. To be clear, that reduction in collisions is not exclusively attributable to the use of calcium chloride but we know that tool was able to help us.
The information above is why I can completely understand why someone would vote for the ongoing use of calcium chloride as an anti-icing solution. Contrary to some online comments, no member of Council is getting a kickback, no member of Council is part of some grand conspiracy to damage our public or private infrastructure, some members of Council simply felt that the safety improvements outweighed any potential negative impacts. To assume that any person that supports the ongoing use of this solution is doing so just to make our lives difficult is an odd assumption to make.
Why I ultimately made the decision to support discontinuing the use of calcium chloride and the development of options to reduce or eliminate the use of sodium chloride is because when I compare the positive impacts of having these tools available to the long-term impacts to public and private infrastructure, I do not believe that the trade-off is worth it. Unfortunately, even though many other cities have been using greater volumes of calcium chloride and sodium chloride for quite some time, no city has completed any detailed research on the impacts to the lifespan of infrastructure and therefore we do have a full understanding of the costs that we would incur due to infrastructure needing to be replaced earlier than what is expected. What we have heard from experts is that there is a negative impact and that there has been even with our existing tools. Our own research also showed that there is an impact to our infrastructure.
I also believe that it may be possible to achieve similar safety outcomes by increasing the use of mechanical means (ex: plowing). I realize there would be an increased cost for that but I believe it will be more than offset by any costs that we will incur to our own property or to our public property. We also have the option of not increasing the use of mechanical means and rather encourage Edmontonians to be more active in road safety. People can drive to the conditions in the winter. I continue to be frustrated when I see people in the winter leave a few feet between themselves and the car in front of them when they are stopped at a traffic light. It’s also frustrating to see people following to closely when the snow is falling and the plows haven’t yet reached the road they are driving on. We have to take personal responsibility as well and be more cautious when driving in the winter.
I think it would also be wise for the provincial government to consider mandatory winter tires. There are some provinces that have taken that step and if that allows us to increase safety while eliminating the use of both calcium chloride and sodium chloride, it may be worth it as we have the potential to save far more through a reduction in costs to our private and public infrastructure. I have been using winter tires for many years now and it makes such a difference when it comes to stopping on icy roads.
One final note, the motion specifically referenced city streets because we will continue to allow City staff to use calcium chloride as an anti-icing solution on certainly multi-use trails, sidewalks, and at some transit centres. During the pilot we also tried this solution to see if we could help address icy sidewalks as we received many complaints from people who cannot drive that trying to navigate our city by foot is quite challenging in the winter. This would often be raised by seniors when I would visit seniors centres and residences across Edmonton.
The feedback I received from these locations where we used calcium chloride as an anti-icing solution was quite positive as sidewalks were kept clear and therefore people were far less likely to slip and fall which can be quite serious. This is not without its own trade-off. There is still impact to the sidewalk or trail where we apply the solution but when it comes to providing seniors – and all Edmontonians – with a clear sidewalk in the winter, I feel comfortable with this option. It will also mean that people will want to clean their shoes a bit more and make sure to wipe their feet when coming from inside but that is a small price to pay to reduce how many people are slipping and falling during the winter. For those who bike and use our bike lanes, you will also want to clean your bike chain more frequently but you should also have a less icy path.
I am happy we reached a resolution today. I want to thank all my colleagues on Council for the respectful debate that occurred. While it was a split vote, I felt that most everyone approached this issue with an open mind and offered insightful feedback throughout the debate. The report in June will mean that we aren’t through debating the issue of winter road/sidewalk maintenance but at least we have a more clear path forward. This path is a joint responsibility between the City and all Edmontonians as we each play a role in having safe streets in the winter. Thanks for all your feedback over the last few years while we tried something different and if you have any questions or feedback, please contact me.