Every snowflake is a call to action

January 3, 2024

Workers prepare for a long night's snowstorm

When the wind howls and the snow starts to fall, the HHB maintenance team is likely already on the road. When you are responsible for two of the most highly scrutinized traffic corridors in the province, you need an unwavering commitment in the face of nature’s relentless challenges.

“If there’s an accident on one of the bridges in the summer, traffic chaos can ensue,” says CEO Tony Wright. “If it happens in the winter, the stakes soar. Not only does it become inconvenient for the entire city, but it can be very dangerous for people facing the elements.”

“That’s why when winter’s icy grip tightens, HHB has the technology and the manpower to make sure everything possible is done to make crossings as safe and uneventful as possible.”

The length of the two bridges combined covers less than three kilometres, but HHB crews are responsible for salting and plowing more than 20 kilometres that include four building locations with parking lots, and a full interchange off Hwy. 111.

“The bridges are totally different from roadways,” explains maintenance technician Bill Welton as he checks the tire pressure on one of the trucks in the snow removal fleet.

“They are steel. They’re over water. The tide goes in, the tide goes out, so there’s constant change of the conditions. You get times when one of the bridges can be covered in snow and everywhere else is nice. You have to be paying attention.”

Ensuring safe passage over those bridges is a priority.

While the latest official weather reports are always taken into consideration, specific conditions on the Macdonald and MacKay bridges are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Each bridge has two weather stations – sensors that record winds, road deck temperatures and moisture. The stations can even tell if there is ice on the bridges, he said.

One of HHB’s trucks is equipped with that same weather tracking system and the ability to take pictures to provide real-time information as the truck is driven. HHB’s other trucks have road temperature sensors that all help provide the information needed to decide when salting or other actions are required.

Staff members try to anticipate the conditions whenever possible.

“That’s where experience comes into play. You have to get used to the signs,” says Bill.

“One thing we do is if we see the bridge temperature and the dew point going to a certain amount, we can apply a small amount of salt to it and that starts to bring the road temperature up, just slowly. If you put too much salt, too fast, it would turn into frost on the bridge.”

If there’s a danger of freezing rain, three trucks are capable of applying a salt brine to the bridge decks. All of HHB’s eight trucks can load and apply salt and four of those trucks can pre-wet the salt before it’s applied, allowing it to activate more quickly and helping it to stick to the decks if it’s windy.

Plowing is done by groups of vehicles working together in order to minimize delays and to get the job done as efficiently and safely as possible. On the MacKay, two loaders and two trucks are used at the same time; in effect, creating a giant blade that covers more lanes at once.

At the Macdonald, three smaller vehicles are used. The plows are equipped with a rubber cutting edge to protect the road surface and a sidewalk machine is also used to clear the way for pedestrians and cyclists.

“We’re constantly learning and evolving from the things we see,” Bill says. “We’re constantly adapting and getting better at what we do.”

But one of the keys to success has to be the dedicated HBB employees who are ready to take on whatever weather comes our way.

“That makes a huge difference,” he says.