City of Winnipeg won’t rule out punishment for residents who cleared frozen bridge
WINNIPEG, MB- No good deed goes unpunished.
That appears to be the case after a pedestrian bridge in Winnipeg was cleared of ice by city residents, after the municipal authorities had decided to close the bridge.
According to email records released by the city to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, city staff spent more time emailing each other about the state of the bridge and the effort it might take to clear it than it took two residents to clear the crossing.
Winnipeg Public Works spokesperson Julie Dooley has also confirmed that action could be taken against the two citizens who cleared the bridge, due to a bylaw infraction.
Asked about the possibility, Dooley said the city is not taking any action at this time. However, it wasn’t ruled out.
The fine for engaging in unauthorized activity in Winnipeg parks is $150, and Dooley confirmed that the two men could fined for breaking the city’s parks bylaw.
Emails sourced from the city’s Public Works department show the chain of events starting on the afternoon of Dec. 4, 2019.
After flooding had left thick ice on the pedestrian bridge in Omand Park in the city’s Wolseley area, bridge maintenance supervisor Mike Terleski emailed traffic foreman Jim Donaldson to get four “Bridge Closed’ signs made.
Signage was requested for both ends of the pathway that led to the crossing, and both ends of the bridge, along with snow fencing.
That morning marked one of the only times clearing the structure was mentioned by Public Works staff, after the possibility of a skid steer being used came up.
Mike Watsko, streets supervisor for the city’s north end, said the machine would be needed for the work, but questioned whether the structure had been damaged and whether it was safe to put equipment on it.
Just past 5:30 p.m., bridge planning and operations engineer Darren Burmey sent a message to councillor Cindy Gilroy, whose ward contains Omand Park.
“Clean up will be performed by Parks and will take a big effort. It may to wait until spring.”
No other emails appear to have been exchanged between Public Works employees on the matter until nine days later on Dec. 13, when media inquiries started to come in about the closure.
In the work of putting together a statement for the press, Dooley sparked a dialogue between Burmey and Parks administrator Kyle Lucyk when asking them for more information.
Lucyk told Dooley there was no easy way to clean the ice without doing further damage to the bridge, and said the best course of action is to “let nature take its course” and have the ice melt in the spring.
He believed the route wasn’t essential to the city’s trail network, with a detour in place.
Burmey, however, chimed in ten minutes later, saying that if the paths leading to the crossing were “made safe” they would de-ice the bridge.
Lucyk forwarded that message to parks colleagues Andy Johnson, and James Houldsworth, confused by what Burmey was saying.
“Do you think we could make the pathways safe? I don’t really know what that means,” wrote Lucyk.
“Sand the hell out of them?”
“How do you make a pathway safe? Clear it of obstructions or hazards that could potentially hurt the public,” read part of Johnson’s reply.
The final statement put out to the press confirmed the closure of the bridge until the ice melted in the spring.
No move to clear the crossing appears to have ever been discussed in detail by Public Works staff.
By Dec. 15, the ice had been cleared away by two men, and more media inquiries were coming into the city. The surprise was evident among the city’s communications team, with Dooley and corporate communications manager David Driedger playing catch-up.
“Assuming somebody took down the barricades again?” wrote Drieger to Dooley that morning.
“If so, do we have crews heading out to put them back up?”
“Yeah ... the community took them down and cleared 2000lbs of ice themselves,” replied Dooley.
By 4:00 p.m. that day, Dooley emailed Public Works staff with the statement that was going out in response to the day’s inquiries.
“The City was not involved in clearing the bridge or path,” read the statement.
“While we understand the community’s frustration, we want to stress the importance of respecting all City closures, signage and barricades. As we do not know the means, methods or tools used to clear the bridge and pathways, we will be attending to inspect the structural integrity of the bridge and safety of the adjacent area.”
The next day, Burmey relayed the results of his inspection to Driedger, and other city staff.
“I was out at the bridge this morning,” he wrote.
“Ice has been removed from the bridge. The ice on the pathway remains and is approx. 12” thick. There are steep decline from the built up ice to the bridge which may be hazardous. There is a meeting with Julie and Parks at 9:30 am. Signs as a minimum and removal of pathway ice with sanding and maintenance by Parks is recommended. Our crew removed the signs and barricades. The bridge is not damaged structurally.”
He then expresses displeasure with the actions by residents to clear the route.
“Actions of the citizens to remove signing and barricades and ice is reckless and should be dealt with and they have not recognized slip hazards nor could of know the bridge was not closed for structural reasons,” wrote Burmey.
By the afternoon, streets staff were shaving and sanding the ice on the pathways. A final email on the matter indicated that the city would be “closely monitoring” the area for traction for the rest of the season.
The city also issued a final, sternly-worded public statement about the whole chain of events, which was used in subsequent news reporting.
Emails between Driedger and Dooley show the development of the statement.
“I’ve tried to soften it a bit, but I think we still have to address why it was not feasible for us to do it by hand if a couple guys could do it in an afternoon,” wrote Driedger, during that back and forth.
Eventually, the city’s narrative took form and laid out their reasoning for the closure, and their views on the un-approved ice clearing.
“What we have now is a situation where residents are being heralded for taking matters into
their own hands; in reality, the residents’ actions caused more risk than existed in the first
place,” read part of the statement.
It went on to say that the bridge was “luckily” undamaged and detailed the work being done to clear the path.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation reached out to the City of Winnipeg about the closure and the events surrounding it.
According to a set of statements from Dooley, workers returned twice to the bridge to replace barricades, after they were put up. There was no cost to the city to make the barricades, as supplies are kept in storage, and the initial set were able to be re-used.
The time spent replacing them was “nominal” according to Dooley.
“Because the ice formations on the bridge posed potential for damage to the bridge structure, it required an inspection before we could open it to foot and bike traffic,” said Dooley.
“Unfortunately, we were unable to inspect until the ice was cleared. We were unable to clear the bridge by hand, as picks and shovels posed too much risk to the structure of the bridge spindle. The other option was to machine-clear; however, the risk of taking machinery down the pathways outweighed the benefits. Ultimately, we were faced with two interdependent issues that were logistically difficult and neither safe nor easy to resolve.”
Dooley said the city was “forced into action” after the ice that was cleared from the bridge was left behind on the pathways, which posed an “incredibly hazardous situation” for users of the citizen-cleared crossing.
“Crews ultimately did clear the pathways with bobcats; however, the operation was risky and was only undertaken in an attempt to mitigate the risk of injury on the embankments,” said Dooley.
As for what options residents had to get the bridge cleared beyond doing it themselves, Dooley’s statement didn’t indicate any.
“The residents followed the appropriate process by calling 311 to express their displeasure with the bridge being closed, and were advised that the City had made the difficult decision to close the bridge for both public and worker safety reasons,” said Dooley.
“Our engineers are responsible for keeping the public safe, and the decision was a reflection of that duty. We want to reiterate that opening and closing bridge structures can only be done by Professional Engineers; the residents who ultimately cleared and reopened the bridge had no way of knowing whether the structure was sound.”
Dooley addressed the “sanding the hell out of it” method of making the path safe as well.
“Sanding the pathway to make machine operation safe and facilitate clearing of the bridge was deemed too dangerous, and posed a greater risk than potential reward,” said Dooley.
“This tact was ultimately undertaken solely as a means of mitigating risk that remained on the slopes once the bridge had been cleared against our direction. Had the bridge not been cleared, we would not have attempted the incredibly risky task of taking machinery down the slope.”
A request for comment was sent to the area councillor, Cindy Gilroy, who did not respond by the time of publication.