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Cold reception for highway maintenance
Escalating complaints about highway conditions throughout the East Kootenay, particularly in the Elk Valley, led to a lengthy discussion at the Friday, Jan. 10 meeting of the Regional District of East Kootenay board of directors.
The region experienced unusual weather conditions at the end of November and the beginning of December, when it snowed about 30 centimetres over 24 hours, followed by a quick drop in temperature to the minus 20s, where it stayed for several days.
Local elected officials appealed to the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure and its highway maintenance contractor Mainroad East Kootenay Contracting to explain why it hadn't done a better job of cleaning up after the weather event.
On Friday, the Ministry and Mainroad presented to the board of directors about how they maintain roads during winter.
First, an Elk Valley resident spoke to the board about his concerns with the road conditions in early December.
Chris Inglis is one of a group who started the Elk Valley Road Report Facebook page, which now has 1,600 members.
"When the roads became really bad, people were voicing their opinions on Facebook," said Inglis. "Some of the driving was described as white knuckle, don't know if I'm going to get to work safe."
Elk Valley municipalities held a public meeting with Mainroad in mid-December to air their concerns.
"Since the Dec. 16 meeting, there has been an absolute turnaround in all perspectives of how the winter road maintenance is being done," said Inglis.
"In my personal opinion, before, the highway contractor was being reactive to snow events. I believe now they are being proactive. They are gearing up, they are getting ready for the snow events."
The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure audits Mainroad's performance and is confident it met the government's specifications for snow removal in early December, MOTI district manager Jack Bennetto told the board Friday.
"I would commit that they met the specifications. We have complained to them, however, and written them up for proactivity. I don't think they met the proactivity piece, and that's why they got caught not keeping up with those rapidly changing weather systems. Most of those were forecast and we need to get out with the right chemicals ahead of the system," said Bennetto.
He explained that there is a high concentration solution that maintenance crews can apply to the road prior to a snow storm.
"But you also have to get it off immediately as that temperature changes. And if you apply it at the wrong concentration and the wrong temperature, it makes the roads more slippery," said Bennetto.
"It's rare that it snows that much and then turns to 30 below. We're not used to that and neither are our drivers."
Cranbrook Mayor Wayne Stetski said that city crews were also struggling with the weather conditions.
"We had nothing in Cranbrook in the way of equipment that could take that ice off once it was established," said Stetski. "There was nothing we could do with the ice in Cranbrook until it warmed up enough that we could finally start applying the salt."
He added that the road conditions in Cranbrook were the worst he's seen in 23 years.
Mainroad has 91 full-time maintenance positions over winter: 16 in Cranbrook; 10 each in Invermere, Fernie and Sparwood; nine in Yahk; and seven each in Kimberley and Jaffray.
The province tells Mainroad which roads are highest priority, based on volume of traffic and type of traffic, such as school bus routes. On Class A roads — high volume routes and school bus routes — there should be no more than four centimetres of accumulated snow.
"We do allow for more than that sometimes when it's snowing intensely. If it's snowing 10 centimetres an hour, we don't expect to have it cleared," said Bennetto. "Bare pavement is not a specification."
Fernie Mayor Mary Giuliano said she is concerned that once public complaints die down on highway conditions, maintenance will slip back to a lesser quality.
"The highway maintenance has been a really hot issue in the last few weeks and you have had a lot of public feedback," said Giuliano. "Once this dies down and there is no longer the public outcry, what assurance can Mainroad give us that this level of service that we are experiencing now – and it is way higher and way better – will continue for the long term?"
Mainroad general manager Jim Conley said that maintenance levels have not changed since the December weather event; rather, Mainroad's response to the public is what has improved.
"The resources we use have not substantially changed. The feedback from the constituents you represent has significantly increased. My goal would be to maintain that open line of communication," said Conley.
He said the Road Report Facebook group has "increased bi-directional communication with the public".
"It has provided us with another 1,600 sets of eyes. The level of communication between drivers is phenomenal and it's occurring far faster than any mechanism we historically have," said Conley. "Increased feedback from the public is a resource that I personally wish we had taken on years ago."