Dissatisfaction with road conditions on Hwy. 22 between Castlegar and Trail has led some people to accuse local road maintenance contractor Emcon Services Inc. of not maintaining the road to proper standards and not maintaining it at the same level as previous years.
The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) refuted these claims at a Castlegar City Council meeting last week, stating that the section of road was audited regularly and that Emcon was in compliance with the standards set out in their contract.
Castlegar councillors had a lot of questions for MOTI and several let it be known that they were not satisfied with the answers they had been getting and expressed their dissatisfaction with the level of winter maintenance required in the contract.
Emcon released a statement saying, “Emcon takes the safety of the travelling public very seriously, our families and friends drive too.”
One of the reasons given for the difficulties with road conditions is the unusual amount of snow and precipitation this winter.
“It has been one of the most challenging winter seasons we have experienced in a long time,” continued the statement. “It’s not just the amount of snow but the combination of snowfall periods, temperatures, storm cycles that all affect the maintenance effectiveness.”
According to Ron Lakeman, weather forecaster for the Southeast Fire Centre, January was the wettest January since 2006 and received about double the normal amount of both snow and rain with measurable precipitation on 22 days.
Emcon’s Kootenay Boundary Division manager Ken Lawson reports that Emcon has used more liquid de-icing chemical this year and has used more winter abrasives and salt to date than any other year.
“We will always experience changing road conditions during the winter season here in the Kootenays,” continued the statement. “Although road conditions may be a contributing factor in some incidents we experienced this winter, there are many other factors that play a significant role in these same type of incidents during all four seasons.”
Lawson expressed frustration with the way people — especially on social media — tend to automatically assume an accident in winter was caused by road conditions. He has attended five of the fatalities this year and said the road conditions at the time were bare and wet.
“I’m not saying that road conditions are not a contributing factor at times, but it is not the main cause usually — it’s people over-driving for conditions.”
“We ask people to be aware of road conditions and adjust their driving to those conditions,” added Lawson.
“Please check the road conditions before you go, allow extra time to get to your destination and arrive safe,” concluded Emcon’s statement.
Emcon has maintained that stretch of road for 30 years and Lawson emphasized that because their yard is at Birchbank — in the middle of the Castlegar-to-Trail span — they are very aware of the conditions on the road.
“All of our employees drive to and from it, all of our trucks are dispatched from the yard,” he said.
Lawson says the company is complying with the standards set out in their contract.
“We have not reduced or changed anything we do, if anything, we have increased … with liquid de-icers now we use a calcium chloride which has a lower freezing point than salt,” he said.
“Our trucks are more powerful and bigger, we have more wing plows — we have more plowing capability than we have ever had.”
He also contradicted some social media reports claiming that they run trucks without the blades down.
“We don’t do that, we don’t encourage that or ever instruct anyone to do that.”
Lawson continued to go back to the fact that people drive too fast for road conditions.
“People drive so much faster these days — it blows the sand off the roads shortly after we put it on,” he stated.
Another problem is that bare black roads give people a false sense of security. “They are scary — they can turn to ice in no time,” Lawson said.
The road maintenance contract is up for renewal this year, and Emcon will be bidding for the contract again.
The MOTI acknowledged at last week’s council meeting that standards and specifications will be changing in the next contract.