Socialist Snowplows and the Minimum Standards of Capitalism

There have been a few amusing images circling on the internet, with captions along the lines of "A socialist snowplow just went past my house. When will this tyranny end?" Or "Evil socialism at work".

Evil Socialism at Work

The idea is cute, and the phrase "socialist snowplows" is certainly memorable. But while this cheekily aimed at "small government" supporters, most snow removal services are very much an example of contract services with more of a focus on the bottom line, rather than the public good.

In Ontario, different levels of government are responsible for different levels of roads, and different minimum standards apply. Provincial highways are handled by the provincial government, while municipal roads are handled by the municipalities. While some cities and municipalities may own and run their own fleet, other areas, including many provincial areas are contracted out to third party contractors.

A socialist snowplow just went past my house. When will this tyranny end?

There are primarily two ways in which snow removal contracts can be negotiated.

  1. Variable cost, where the contractor would issue an invoice for every time the roads receive maintenance.
  2. Fixed cost contract, where the contractor performs all maintenance necessary.

In reality, there may be some mixture of the two. It's a means of assigning the risk associated with winter weather. On a snowy year, the fixed cost contracts protect the governing body from excess costs, at the expense of the contractor. In a relatively snow-free year, a fixed cost contract provides a bonus to the contractor, while the budget of the governing body remains fixed in advance.

While this can control costs, it does affect service. Only when road conditions are to a certain point, usually defined by snow depth, will the snow plows need to be sent out. The ministry of Transportation has posted their MTO Winter Maintenance plans, which shows that there are different time standards to each bare pavement.

MTO sets performance targets for snow and ice control to achieve the bare pavement standard after the end of the storm. The bare pavement standard for each class of highway is:

  1. Eight hours for freeways and multi-lane highways, e.g. Highway 401, Queen Elizabeth Way, Highway 11 and four-lane sections (Class 1).
  2. Sixteen hours for high traffic volume, two-lane highways, e.g. Highway 17 Trans-Canada (Class 2).
  3. Twenty-four hours for medium traffic volume, two-lane highways, eg. Highway 35 (Class 3).
  4. Twenty-four hours to centre bare for low volume, two-lane highways, e.g. Highway 516 (Class 4).
  5. Some highways with low traffic remain snow packed for most of the winter (Class 5). On Class 5 highways, excess snow is plowed off and sand is applied to improve friction.

The North Bay Nippissing News talks about these bare minimum standards as well. talking specifically about the frequency that the roads are plowed during a snow event. They quote a Ministry of Transportation source as follows:

The circuit time for a Class 3 highway is 3.3 hours; therefore, once the contractor commences plowing upon the accumulation of two centimetres of snow, the plow continuously services its defined plow route every 3.3 hours until the winter event ends and roads conditions have been restored.

Note that it doesn't matter at what rate the snow is falling. While the snow event continues, those plows are on a 3.3 hour rotation. If the snow event continues for many hours, there can be significant snow accumulation on the roads until the next plow goes through. But if that's what the regulations state is required, that's what those roads will get. As the North Bay Nippissing News says:

A 60 km stretch of provincial highway gets plowed once every three-and-a-half hours – that’s the standard. Not the patrol yard will decide how to respond to weather conditions or the ministry expects every effort will be made to make sure there doesn’t become more than two inches of snow on the road or that actual road conditions have any connection to response. In other words, it’s not about safety. It’s about minimum standards – bare minimum standards.

When the road contracts are awarded to companies based outside of the community, on a for-profit basis, why should we assume that these companies would go beyond the minimum standards set out in the contracts? With no ties to the community, but with a real impact on their bottom line, there is no real incentive to maintain the roads to a higher standard.

So while you may joke about the socialist snowplows from the comfort of your home or office, for those who need to travel during adverse conditions, public safety plays second fiddle to economics. So while those snow plows are provided for the benefit of the public, paid for by public tax dollars, even here, capitalist economics is very much at play.