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LETTER: Area road maintenance on a slippery slope?

Dear editor,

Road maintenance in our area has deteriorated drastically over the last few years.

During the first 10 years of privatization of highways maintenance the system worked fine. The Ministry required the contractors to maintain the same number of employees, equipment and yards that the M.O.H. previously had.

The Ministry had full time inspectors making sure that the contractors did the job properly and maintained the highways to M.O.H. standards.  The M.O.H. then gave the contractors a 10-year contract and a free rein, and did away with M.O.H. inspectors.  This is when road maintenance started declining to the level we are at now.

There is nobody to blame but the Ministry of Highways for allowing this to happen.  The cities of Castlegar, Trail and Rossland each have more maintenance employees that the contractor in Birchbank. The contractor has a supervisor, a senior roads foreman, a junior roads foreman, two mechanics and only half a dozen full-time road crew left.

The contractor in the Rossland, Trail, Castlegar and Fruitvale area has cut his overheard drastically over the last number of years.  The company has not replaced any employees that have retired and now has only a handful of regular full-time employees.  The company has also reduced some of their road maintenance equipment.

The maintenance contractor is now relying on sub-contractors and spare employees, on a “call-out when needed” basis to help do the road maintenance contract.  The company went from three maintenance yards down to one for our entire area.

There are now too few regular and part-time employees on winter shifts, spread out too thin, trying to maintain the area highways.  Rossland, Trail, Fruitvale and Castlegar are vast areas to maintain in the winter.  You cannot just send one truck to cover the Fruitvale area, one truck to cover the Rossland area and one truck to cover the Castlegar area.

Each of these used to have a highways maintenance yard with a large winter crew doing the same job.  Weather and road conditions can change drastically in a short period of time.

A lone operator can soon be overwhelmed and just cannot keep up.  He cannot be in three places at once; he has to call for help.

Now the contractor needs to call out his sub-contractors and the extra operators.  This takes time to get extra crews and equipment on the road.  During this time, area highways are starting to get slippery and dangerous and out of Ministry of Highways Winter Maintenance Standards.  Accidents start happening, people start getting hurt.  This is not good enough!

The contractor’s standard statement -  “There was a truck in the area”.  What part of the area?  Each area is very large.

That truck could have been working out on the East end of Fruitvale, when it started snowing at the Trail bridge; at rush hour, when the road turned slippery and caused a big traffic jam and accidents on the Glenmerry Dump hill, tying traffic up for hours.

Where was that truck when the roads froze at Rock Island and there were four accidents?  When did that truck finally get there to sand up the highways. With the temperature dropping and this being a high traffic volume highway, the road should have been sanded or salted before it tightened up and froze.

Where was the truck that was supposed to be in the area, when the school bus, loaded with children, a tow truck and a car slid off the Trail hill just before Christmas?

When the young family headed over the Nancy Green Highway and the road had 10 cm of snow on it and hadn’t been plowed, where was that plow truck?

71 transport trucks had to be towed up the Trail Hill last year.  28 trucks this year and we have hardly had any snow.

The Ministry of Highways used to have two full-time highways inspectors in this area; one in Rossland and one in Castlegar; making sure that the highways maintenance contractor maintained the highway to Ministry of Highways standards summer and winter.  Now the contractor is responsible for supervising itself.

The Ministry of Highways standard statement across the province after an accident – “The contractor was doing his best considering the road and weather conditions at the time”.   What was the contractor’s best?  Did he only have two trucks on the road during the snowstorm or when the wet roads were starting to freeze, when he should have had six?

There aren’t highways inspectors anymore to make sure that the contractor deployed all of his available resources to protect the travelling public.  The contractor’s inspectors are protecting the interests of the company shareholders.

The Kootenays are not the only area in the province having winter maintenance problems.  The MLA for Nicola-Chilcoltin is calling for the highways maintenance contractor on the Coquihalla Highway to be fired?

Truckers on the Coquihalla call the maintenance crews ‘Sasquatches’  -  You never see them!

It is not just winter maintenance that is declining in this area; summer maintenance is suffering too.  If the Ministry of Highways were to inspect (like they used to) the highway drainage in the Rossland/Trail/Castlegar and Fruitvale area, it would blow their minds.  It is totally out of Ministry of Highways standards.  Very little work has been done since the Ministry got rid of the inspectors! Ditching is the only thing being done.

Last spring, the catch basins on the Trail hill were plugged, covered by winter sand.  All that was needed was a man to take a shovel and clean the sand off the grates (this has to be done after every heavy summer rainstorm too).  The catch basins stayed plugged all summer, unable to take away the water coming off the highway.  Water built up in the ditch until it ran over the top and down the next ditch to the next plugged catch basin.  This action continued all the way down the hill until the extreme volume of water finally jumped off the road and washed out the shoulder of the highway. This isn’t proper highway maintenance!!

A section of guardrail was hit by a vehicle just before the long-weekend with several pieces of the guardrail sticking out into the travel portion of the highway.  The contractor did not fix this hazard until Tuesday after the holiday weekend.  Totally out of highways standards.  A situation like this requires immediate attention.

Just below the Warfield train overpass, there was a culvert, in plain site, with debris plugging the outlet and flume.  It was like that for 3 years.  It was finally cleaned out last fall.  Totally not acceptable!!

Last spring, east of Creston, a section of Highway 3 had potholes in it, so large that a car could be damaged after hitting one.  This section of highway was in a deplorable condition for a long time.  Totally out of Highways standards -  Totally unacceptable.

One trucker who travels from Calgary to Rossland and back three times/week; told me that on one trip this winter, the roads were so bad from the Alberta border to Creston, the only safe speed he could go was 60 km/h.  None of these conditions would have been allowed when Ministry of Highways inspectors were on the job!

Road maintenance in the province has drastically deteriorated.  The Ministry of Highways needs to

 

  • Review highway maintenance in the province
  • Talk to and listen to the paramedics & rescue personnel, RCMP, ICBC, their own highways staff, DOT, truckers and accident victims (they can tell you what the roads have been like).
  • Weed out the bad contractors or come down hard on the contractors who are no longer doing their job.
  • Bring back inspectors to make sure that the contractors are meeting all aspects of highway maintenance standards.

Lets get back to safe worry-free highways with 0 accidents, 0 injuries and 0 deaths.  Why should concerned citizens have to bring this to the media?  Why hasn’t the Ministry of Highways been listening?  Are the Ministry of Highways and our MLAs also failing to protect the travelling public?

This is a big change in service in just a few years. The fears that the public had when highways was first privatized is now a reality.

Edward Davies
Rossland, BC