Highway contracts promise safer roads Will they deliver?

By Andru McCracken


Having more frequent contractor patrols on the highway, especially in anticipation of and during winter storms will help highways maintenance crews be prepared and in the know says one local source.

The highway maintenance contract between the Province and highway maintenance contractors will expire for the Robson Service Area (Wire Cache to the Alberta Border to Loos) in August 2021, and the tender for the new contract will include new standards aimed at improving winter highway conditions. The area is currently served by Lakes District Maintenance.

The Ministry of Transportation said they are always looking to improve service and that the renewal of maintenance contracts provided the opportunity.

New maintenance contracts will require a ‘more proactive approach’ to winter maintenance.

The changes include:

  • increased communication with the public about rapidly changing road conditions during severe weather events and other incidents affecting travel on B.C. roads;
  • returning Class A highways to bare pavement within 24 hours of a winter weather event (the previous standard was 48 hours at temperatures of -9 C or warmer);
  • increasing patrol frequency to 90 minutes on a Class A highway during a winter storm (the previous standard was four hours);
  • and increasing the patrol frequency to four hours when a weather event is forecast (the previous standard was 24 hours).

The ministry said maintenance contractors are responsible for meeting the province’s high standards for maintenance.

“Ministry staff constantly monitor and audit all work completed by the maintenance contractors to ensure they are meeting the obligations outlined in the highway maintenance service agreements to protect public safety, the environment, the infrastructure, and public funds,” read a press release.

The Goat spoke with a former highway maintenance supervisor on the condition of anonymity about what changes the travelling public are likely to see in our area. “John Doe” said the new rules could cut both ways.

The good
Having more frequent contractor patrols on the highway, especially in anticipation of and during winter storms will help highways maintenance crews be prepared and in the know.

“Faster response times is a good change,” said the supervisor. “What we’re up against here is that every side valley has their own weather system.”

He said that the weather may be beautiful and clear in McBride while it is a wild snow storm at the West Twin, Slim Creek and Moose Lake.

“More patrolling will help,” he said.

Smaller abrasives
One of the changes that Doe said the travelling public will appreciate is the decrease in the size of gravel applied to the highway.

The new standard will drop from a maximum of 12.5mm in diameter to 9.5mm, meaning windshields will have an easier time surviving winter.

He said contractors would do well to remove the fines from their gravel because it misleads the public.

“The public perception is that if the road is brown there is good traction, but it is those little pieces that jam into the compact that give you traction,” said Doe. Removing the fines would lead to more consistent traction.

The bad
A new requirement to have bare pavement within 24 hours when the temperature is -9C and rising could lead to trouble in wintry climes like the Robson Valley.

While there isn’t an official standard according to the government, Doe said local contractors attempted to get bare pavement within 24 hours when the temperature was -5 and rising.

“There are some issues if it looks like temperature is rising and you start salting at -9 C,” said Doe.

He said in the early winter when the ground isn’t frozen it may make sense, but in the spring, when the ground is thoroughly frozen, it could lead to big problems.

“In our area, sometimes they forecast a warming trend and it twitches and goes the other way,” said Doe.

The result is that the salted compact snow becomes what he calls grey ice.

“It makes a compound you can hardly touch,” he said. “You almost can’t get it off.”

Environmental concerns
Doe said a personal concern is how much more chemical or salt contractors will be putting on the road and into the environment to meet the new standards.

He said that using salt in colder temperatures means more brine, potentially almost double the amount.

Taking time is more safe
Doe said the highways maintenance contractor currently uses a 48 hour window to get compact snow off the highway safely, first cutting through the compact with an ice blade and then salting it.

“If I had to take it off in 24 hours there would be way more slush,” he said. “It makes the road more dangerous.”

Ministry oversight
Not included in the contract changes is more ministry oversight.

Doe said that enforcing current standards with more boots on the ground would result in an improvement.

“I can’t be everywhere making sure my guys are everywhere. It’s a joint thing,” said Doe. “The biggest thing overall is verification they are doing their job. The ministry needs more boots on the ground.”

Peril in Blue River
If there is a local stretch of road that raises major safety concerns and the ire of local residents, it’s around Blue River. Doe said that new standards will not likely result in better road conditions there.

He said that because the area of concern is near the boundary where another highway contractor takes over, it seems like poor conditions are the contractor’s fault.

“They are dealing with so much snow and ten times the traffic (of Highway 16). There is not a thing you can do about it. Every time a transport goes through it makes another layer, you can’t put enough equipment out there.”

Doe said comparing Clearwater to Blue River isn’t fair.

“You’re going from a snow belt to an area that gets three crops a year,” he said.

Murphy’s Law
Regardless of the standards, problems are bound to happen.

“It doesn’t matter how new your equipment is,” said Doe. “It breaks down when you need it. It’s Murphy’s law to a ‘T’.”

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