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Councillors in Metro Vancouver call for 'snow summit' to better prepare for snowstorms

Surrey Coun. Linda Annis says the province, municipalities, transit authorities and maintenance contractors all need to be better prepared to handle future snow storms in Metro Vancouver. (Janella Hamilton/CBC - image credit)
Surrey Coun. Linda Annis says the province, municipalities, transit authorities and maintenance contractors all need to be better prepared to handle future snow storms in Metro Vancouver. (Janella Hamilton/CBC - image credit)

Two Metro Vancouver councillors are trying to organize a "snow summit" that would bring together municipal leaders, provincial officials, transit authorities and maintenance contractors to discuss how to co-ordinate and improve the region's response to major snowfalls.

Surrey Coun. Linda Annis and New Westminster Counc. Daniel Fontaine co-signed a letter on Thursday, calling for an analysis of the breakdowns that choked Metro Vancouver roads and highways during the snowstorm earlier in the week.

They are asking George Harvey, chair of the Metro Vancouver Regional District, and B.C. Minister of Transportation Rob Fleming to bring municipal officials, leaders and transportation agencies like ICBC together for a meeting.

On Tuesday, 20 centimetres of snow blanketed municipalities across B.C.'s South Coast, causing major traffic congestion and vehicle pileups, effectively paralyzing road transportation in the Lower Mainland.

"Winters are getting colder and colder," she told CBC News when asked what she wanted discussed at the summit.

"Do we have enough budget allocated? Do we have enough equipment and manpower to be able to handle these snowstorms?

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press
Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

"The cities weren't prepared, the province wasn't prepared, nor were the residents," added Annis, who spent around eight hours getting home from Vancouver to South Surrey Tuesday night.

"I think we need to come together as a group and deal with this, so we can be proactive in the future to avoid a similar circumstance."

In the letter, Fontaine said the snowstorm "wasn't a surprise."

"But the impact was a complete shutdown that closed roads and bridges and really brought much of the Lower Mainland to a complete halt," the letter reads.

"I think it's important to know why, and to work on a regional plan that does better next time. This has to be a combined effort of the province and local municipalities across the Lower Mainland."

'No update' from government: stranded commuter

Tony Aung, one of many drivers stranded on an eastbound section of Highway 91, says he was on the highway around 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday when traffic started to slow down.

Collisions and pileups had forced a shutdown of one side of the Alex Fraser Bridge, which connects South Vancouver with New Westminster, Delta and Richmond.

It didn't start fully moving again until after 3 a.m. the following morning.

Submitted by Tony Aung
Submitted by Tony Aung

"The bridge was never shut down, but there was so many broken-down, spun-out cars everywhere because they didn't prepare," Aung said.

He described having to weave his way through abandoned vehicles, changing lanes and driving extremely slowly on snow and ice after spending hours huddled in a blanket in his car.

"They didn't salt the bridge ahead of time and when it started snowing they tried to do it ... but everyone was rushing home and they couldn't do it effectively."

Aung says he and about half of his co-workers at a telecommunications company in Richmond live in Surrey, and rely on the bridge to get home from work every day.

Some of his colleagues, including one who has diabetes, were forced to turn around or leave their cars, and walk back to the office to spend the night there.

Aung's biggest frustration is what appeared to be a lack of communication from officials, and the sense that drivers were left to fend for themselves.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press
Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

"[There was] no update from the B.C. government or from the cities," he said.

"Nothing visible on the highways that the bridge is impassable and you [should] go to the nearest exit."

Many vehicles 'challenged': ministry

Dan Mountain, spokesperson for TransLink, said SkyTrains and SeaBuses ran smoothly during Tuesday's storm. He admits it was a different story for city buses, but claims the major source of delays was congestion.

"There was gridlock on Tuesday and our buses are really only as good as the roads they drive on," Mountain said.

"If cars are stuck in traffic then odds are buses are too."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

In a statement to CBC, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure said all available equipment and crews were deployed but heavy snow accumulation and winds made clearing and salting operations more difficult.

"Despite our maintenance contractors' efforts, many vehicles were challenged with grades on our structures," reads the statement.

"The majority of these vehicles were buses and semi-trucks that could not climb the grades in the conditions."

The statement adds that heavy traffic and overnight congestion prevented snowplows from getting to key areas to clear abandoned vehicles and address road conditions.

A spokesperson said the ministry and its maintenance contractor are conducting a review of what happened to see if there are additional measures they can take in anticipation of future weather events.

The ministry says it would be open to meeting with municipal officials and transit authorities, adding the different jurisdictions involved in transportation already communicate at the staff level.

Annis says plans for the snow summit are still in the preliminary stages, but she hopes to hear back from municipal, regional and provincial officials soon to start planning when they can meet.