Brownstein: Snow-removal fury? Smiling Philippe Sabourin is here to help

Handling media requests and citizen outrage could grind a person down. 'There’s no stress here for me. I honestly love what I do, and so I remain positive all the time.'

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Why is this man always smiling?

He spends much of his days and nights often getting peppered by the press about slow snow removal and slippery streets and sidewalks sometimes perceived to be less pristine than bike paths. Not to mention criticism about rampant street construction, broken water pipes, mobility or lack thereof, recycling, composting and, natch, the ever-ongoing Mountain road imbroglio.

Such is the life of city of Montreal spokesperson Philippe Sabourin. He is on the front line — some might even say the firing line — in seeking to explain city-hall decisions that some find confounding.

Sabourin awakes around 4:30 a.m. to see what’s up or down in the city. He can often be heard on radio at 6 a.m. and then on the tube throughout the day. He can be counted on to send text messages to media up until late at night. In short, he’s always available.

This is a job that could give most ulcers. Not Sabourin. He relishes it all. He’s not just a glass-half-full fellow — his mug overflows. I suspect he may even whistle while he works.

“There’s no stress here for me. I honestly love what I do, and so I remain positive all the time,” says the ever-affable Sabourin, 47,  who became the city’s spokesperson three years ago.

“I’m confident because I feel I have the information to understand the situation and make citizens more aware of the challenges we face. And they are more willing to accept the situation, even if it’s difficult. They understand there’s no way we can get rid of two-metre-high snowbanks in just a few days.”

The stats appear to support Sabourin’s assertion. Despite frequent media outrage over these issues — I plead guilty here — citizen complaints have dropped. Between Nov. 1 and Feb. 10, the city received 397 from the 19 boroughs. That’s down considerably from last year’s 707 complaints over the same period.

Sabourin is taking me and Montreal Gazette photographer Allen McInnis on a drive through the city to check out key operational posts on the snow-battle front.

Since Feb. 6, Montreal has received about 60 centimetres of snow and, as of Sunday, the cleanup was 95 per cent completed. Sabourin estimates the job will be finished by Monday — unless another storm strikes.

But even on a relatively calm day, Sabourin is having to deal with complaints from LaSalle residents about unplowed sidewalks and from irate city motorists who’ve been issued tickets on streets after they’ve been cleaned, but with the No Parking signs still erroneously in place.

In the first instance, the problem relates to massive amounts of snow removed from homes and driveways, thus requiring heavier artillery to clear sidewalks. And while sympathetic to the plight of wrongly ticketed motorists, Sabourin notes this is more a police issue.

Then there’s the reality of some boroughs being faster than others in removal operations.

“It’s like we’re running a marathon here. It doesn’t always matter who is fastest, but more that we all get to the finish line in good time. Often, we have to work on steeper hills first, as is the case in the Ville-Marie borough. In Île-Bizard, it’s fast, because they don’t have to transport the snow. They can blow it on the side. But in Côte-des-Neiges, they have to load the snow at night, because there’s so much traffic during the day and they’re so far away from the land dump sites.

“What has to be considered is the geographic situation of each borough in relation to the dump sites and the density of the population. Each borough has to figure out the best strategy.”

Sabourin disputes a conspiracy theory about bike paths receiving priority treatment.

“The point is we use different tools and machinery for the streets, sidewalks and bike paths. They all start working around the same time but there’s certainly no bike-path priority. We try to do sidewalks first to ensure pedestrian safety. We realize it’s not perfect, but we are trying.”

The city is a network of 10,000 kilometres, 6,000 of which are sidewalks and only 700 of which are bike paths.

“That’s the equivalent of the distance between Montreal and James Bay,” Sabourin says. “That’s our challenge, and clearing it is like a military operation.”

That would make executive committee member and Verdun mayor Jean-François Parenteau the general.

Over 3,000 workers are involved in this operation. The cost is equally enormous, about $1 million per every cleared centimetre of snowfall, according to Sabourin. While we’ve already received close to the seasonal average of 190 centimetres, only 120 centimetres has had to be cleared away. The rest has melted on its own.

The snow-removal budget this winter is about $180 million, but should we get blasted again, there’s still plenty of capacity left to accommodate it at the city’s 12 land and 16 sewer dump sites, which together can handle up to 18 million cubic metres of snow.

A contracted dump truck operator unloads into the sewer system at one of the approved sewer dumps in Montreal on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. The sewer dump is located under the Jacques Cartier Bridge and feeds in to one of the largest sewers in the city, which transports the melts snow to the water-filtration plant in east-end Montreal. Allen McInnis / Montreal Gazette

On the subject of sewer sites, we visit one under the Jacques-Cartier Bridge. During the height of snow-removal operations, 100 trucks an hour, 24/7, drop off their loads here.

Sabourin explains that the sewer sites save a lot of time, especially in the downtown area, where trucks don’t have to haul snow at land sites farther away. He also is quick to point out that the dumped snow goes through a water treatment process before being moved into the St-Lawrence River.

“In the old days, the snow, which can contain salt and grease, went straight into the river, without regard to the environment,” Sabourin says.

We also visit “command central,” a small office in an Old Montreal highrise. Staff here monitors road conditions on 550 closed-circuit cameras throughout the city. Based on their surveillance, they are able to direct crews from affected boroughs to trouble spots. They also control traffic lights, in case of emergencies.

“The worst scenario is freezing rain and ice pellets, especially in hilly areas,” Sabourin says.

Adds staffer Alain Dupuis: “We see everything that goes on in the city here, and some of it can be pretty crazy. But the key is not to panic.”

That appears to be the prerequisite for a job here.

“I love the snow. It’s like a winter wonderland for me here. That explains why I’m so positive,” Sabourin says. “There’s little more beautiful a sight than watching one of our machines at a land site blowing snow 140 feet in the air at sunrise.”

Such a romantic. But surely there must be a downside to the job.

“What’s Philippe doing between the tempests? Why, he’s dealing with the potholes,” Sabourin says with a sigh.

Plus ça change …