Toronto's snow-clearing work plagued with problems, documents show, as storm bears down 14 December 2022 04:29 AM: City documents obtained by CBC Toronto are raising questions about how prepared Toronto is when it comes to snow-clearing days before a major storm is set to hit.

Seven documents show the joint venture that now controls most snow-clearing in Toronto — 2868415 Ontario Inc., which appears to have rebranded itself as "Snow T.O." — was as recently as Nov. 21 (days after the first big snowfall), using equipment that still needed to be checked and calibrated, and has at times not been equipped with signage required by Ontario law.

In addition, not all of the equipment has GPS tracking installed, the documents show. The general manager for Toronto's Transportation Services, Barbara Gray, said the city has been working with the contractor and clearly communicating its expectations.

"It has been absolutely a challenging time for everybody across the board trying to get equipment, trying to get staff. There are labour shortages," Gray said.

"We've all been working collaboratively together to try to move this forward. That said, the contractors have a contract. They have performance standards that we are tracking and managing."

Barbara Gray, the general manager of Transportation Services with the City of Toronto, is shown here speaking to members of the media last February about the city’s snow clearing plan ahead of an expected snowstorm. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

City tracks snow plow performance with GPS

Tracking snow plow performance has been a controversial issue at city hall.

The city's auditor general found he failure to track snow-clearing contractors cost Toronto taxpayers some $7.1 million over a five-year span. Money aside, the lack of GPS means residents can't tell if a plow is coming to their area because the city's online PlowTO map was not up and running for the first snowfalls of the season.

It was online as of this Sunday, but the city said about 25 per cent of the contractor's fleet has yet to be outfitted with the GPS devices. 

The rest are expected to be installed over the next week.

"GPS is a critical component of this contract," a city email dated Nov. 21 said, noting the contractors must provide a written weekly verification report. 

"To date, reports and or confirmation have not been provided."

All of this work, one document notes, should have been done 60 days before the winter season. 

Staff warn contractor of possible fines

City staff have threatened fines at multiple points, the documents show, ranging from $400 to $1,000 per day, however. 

In an interview with CBC Toronto, Vincent Sferrazza, Toronto's Transportation's director of operations and maintenance, would not say if the city planned to fine the contractor.

"We will look at the performance … over its entire season," he said. "And at that point, we can decide how we will proceed."

The documents also point out the contractors have been slow to provide full equipment lists and other documents.

CBC Toronto emailed Snow T.O. for comment but so far has not received a response.

.A TTC streetcar is shown here on King Street during a snowfall last month (Michael Wilson/CBC)

In a letter to the city dated Nov. 25, Snow T.O. said it was operating on a contingency plan due to a vehicle shortage caused in large part by the COVID-19 pandemic's disruption of supply chains.

Some temporary leased vehicles and older model equipment will be used until the new models are delivered, something the joint venture says is happening on a daily basis.

That disruption was predicted by an industry source and automotive expert when city council was voting on the multi-year contract.

Firm defends its work, takes on millions in additional costs

In emails to the city, the company fiercely defends its efforts and claims it has eaten some $10 million in costs that have gone up since it won the contract last December  — following a tense process that saw rival companies, many of which had been plowing in the city for decades, raise a number of red flags. 

However, Snow T.O. said as of late October it was some 25 trucks short and searching for used vehicles to plug the gap, while also considering modifying some salting beats. 

"Our team has made monumental efforts to overcome all the aforementioned issues to ensure we can provide high quality winter maintenance services to the City of Toronto when needed," company director Fausto Di Carlo writes in an email on Nov. 25.

Joggers brave the elements in The Beach during Toronto's first significant snowfall of the season last month. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

CBC Toronto has already reported on the company's use of 33 concrete trucks with plows mounted on the front, something that triggered concern from councillors and road safety advocates alike. 

The City of Toronto told CBC Toronto in an email on Dec. 6 that all snow-clearing equipment has been delivered and is "ready to quickly and strategically mobilize when a winter storm approaches."

Toronto Mayor John Tory said he has been assured the city is ready and all vehicles required are now in place.

With a budget of $109 million for this season, crews are on standby 24/7, he said in a statement.

"We expect Transportation Services to do their job and manage the contracts — sometimes this involves sending letters and following up to make sure the work is done and to deal with any issues which arise," he said.

Council received few details ahead of vote: Matlow

Coun. Josh Matlow, one of five councillors who voted against awarding the contract last year, said the documents raise red flags about the city's snow clearing services.

"It was thrust upon counsel with very little detail, very little information," he said.

"But it was promised to be just the best thing since sliced bread. … Now we're seeing what happens when you vote for something without reading the details."

He said the city has little control over services when they're contracted out and writing letters to the contractor isn't likely to help. Bringing more services back in-house could be a solution, he said.

Coun. Josh Matlow, who represents Ward 12, Toronto-St. Paul's, says the city has little control when it contracts out services and should look at bringing more of them back in-house. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

"We'll write a very stern letter to our contractor and beg them to do better? That's absurd," he said. "That's no way to run a city. And so I think we need to take a different approach."

Coun. Paula Fletcher said the documents reveal that the relationship between the city and its snow removal contractor is off to a troubling start.

"This is a brand new contract, it's a very large contract - over a billion dollars for seven years," she said. "And it should be shipshape to start, not questionable. It's not a great look." 

But Fletcher said the real test will be if the company can respond and provide the services during the city's next big storm.

"If sidewalks haven't been cleared, bike lanes haven't been cleared, streets haven't been cleared, people can't get out of the driveway .... If that happens, then the snow will really hit the fan."

How did we get here?

CBC Toronto has been following this story closely for the last year. Here's a timeline of our reporting:

  • Last December, the city opted to award 9 of 11 snow-clearing contracts — worth nearly $900 over the next decade — to two companies and a joint venture they launched together during a Negotiated Request for Proposal (nRFP) process. Those companies are responsible for plowing the entire city except for the Willowdale area and the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway.
  • Rival companies that had done that snow-clearing work for decades said the companies' dominance should raise "red flags" for city councillors. 
  • Industry experts warned the COVID-19 pandemic would make it extremely difficult for the companies to acquire the 925 vehicles they need to do the work. City staff didn't disclose at the time how many snow-clearing machines the companies had.
  • City council voted 20-5 to move ahead with the contracts, but also unanimously voted in favour of asking the city's auditor general to review the nRFP process. 
  • In September, CBC Toronto reported that the contractors would be using 33 cement trucks outfitted with snowplow blades, something councillors weren't made aware of when they voted on the contracts. 

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