A delegation from the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) Highways Department appeared before city council Monday night and the group was faced with some tough questions from councillors.
The MOTI representatives were district program engineer Ryan Oakley, district manager Hugh Eberle, area manager Greg Kinnear and district operations manager Dennis Kurylowich.
The representatives presented an overview of MOTI operations, winter operations and the Shift into Winter campaign, but as soon as they began taking questions, Coun. Deb McIntosh brought up the high number of fatalities that have occurred this year on Hwy. 22 between Castlegar and Trail and a large number of complaints regarding maintenance of that section of road that has come from the public.
“As you now Hwy 22 has posed a lot of problems this year,” began McIntosh. “I don’t know if it’s driver error, I don’t know if it’s conditions — but I do know that we have an abnormal number for us of fatalities happening. It is hard to justify to a community or to a region that while driving on a road that we drive every day that these things can happen. “
She continued by asking if the situation is being monitored.
“I don’t know how often you monitor the roads, I don’t know if there is a certain way to find out what people are actually doing — dropping the blade or putting sand down, or salt or whatever. But I don’t have an answer for the people that are asking me why people are dying … We need some answers.”
Kinnear explained that roads are inspected on a 24/7 basis and the contractor responsible for that section of road — Emcon — has been found to be in compliance with the specifications of their contract.
Contractors must comply with what is know as ISO9000 — an industry standard quality management system.
“That being said, there are times when road conditions aren’t great,” acknowledged Kinnear.
“In compliance — I guess it is easy to justify that way,” responded McIntosh. “Is there some kind of reporting system that can be shown? I have a parent out in the audience who lost her child — and she is asking for answers.”
McIntosh continued, “Although they are following the principal or the spirit of the ISO9000 I think that if maybe they didn’t have to follow the spirit of it, but actually had to follow it …
“I’m not blaming anyone, I know these things happen and I know there are driver issues as well. But when it comes to the safety of roads, I don’t think we can put a high enough level on it.”
“First of all, we express our sincere condolences to anyone who has had some sort of incident on the highway,” expressed Eberle. “We never want to see incidents on the highway, whether it is summer time or winter time. Safety is our highest priority. We are always looking at anything that can happen on the highway and if there is anything we can do to improve on that.”
“It is also important to know that sometimes I think there is a difference in peoples expectations of what winter maintenance is and what our specifications are,” added Eberle.
“If they understood that, they might understand a little bit better that maybe it isn’t the contractor that is to blame — we have accidents in summer as well as winter. We know that there is usually a number of contributing factors to any kind of incident. They can be caused by driver’s behaviour or actions, they can be caused by mechanical failures …”
McIntosh didn’t accept people having false expectations as an excuse.
“So if the expectations are higher than the [standards] … Perhaps it is time that you guys look at your rules and up the ante. I’m not trying to be combative or anything — we’re the people on the front line who have to answer the questions and we are having a really hard time doing that.,” she added.
“When there are so many complaints about the same area, the same places, or one contractor is doing a job that seems to far exceed the other contractor — it just doesn’t make sense to the average person.
“Our families and our friends and our coworkers are out there driving those roads — so are your families. We just want to make sure everyone is doing their part to make sure everyone is safe because we don’t want to see any fatalities,” concluded McIntosh.
“I agree — I think we are all concerned about safety,” said Oakley. “No one here is trying to short change anyone.”
“I think it is important to note that this year’s winter has been exceptional,” added Oakley before referring to the Castlegar Weather Centre report that January received twice as much precipitation this year compared to an average year.
He explained that repeated freeze and thaw cycles make clearing roads very difficult and that adding sand onto compact snow and ice surfaces are sometimes useless.
“You can sand all you want, and the sand blows off. The only thing you can do to rectify that is that you need to have people slow down,” said Oakley.
“I can tell you from the people I have spoken to and Greg [Kinnear] will attest to as well — people are not slowing down, they are not adjusting their speed.”
Coun. Sue Heaton-Shershtobitoff had prepared for the meeting by reading the local contract. She asked for details on how contractors were audited and what those audits consist of.
The representatives explained that there are a variety of audits — road condition, process, quality control — and the minimum number of audits is set by the Auditor General of B.C., but more can be done as management sees the need.
The contracts require that plowing must start as soon as it starts snowing. The maximum amount of accumulated snow at any given time is 4 cm. Work on restoring traction must start within 90 minutes.
The representatives explained that ice-melting chemicals only work at -6 C degrees and rising and that the chemicals can be easily diluted by wind, dew point or new precipitation and once diluted, will refreeze.
They also wanted people to understand that there is a difference between pavement temperatures and air temperatures, noting it can be +1 or +2 C, but the pavement may still be between – 4 C and – 6 C.
Area winter road maintenance contracts are up for renewal before next winter and Oakley said that some specifications and subtleties will be changing in the new contracts.
Some of those changes include liquid de-icing applications beginning at -9 C, restoration within 24 hours, a smaller gradation of sand and clearing off edges of the road quicker.
Local highways see more than 10,000 cars a day and one thing that is unique to the area is that a large number of that traffic is from local commuter traffic instead of travellers passing through.
This is a concern because people tend to go into autopilot mode when driving familiar roads.
Eberle also explained that the Kootenay weather is some of the most challenging weather to drive in.
The delegation encouraged everyone to sign up for DriveBC alerts and to call in anytime they observe a problem on the roads.
Sometimes people are hesitant to complain, but the Highway Department encourages the calls. The information gives real-time information on changing road conditions and allows contractors to refine their maintenance plans.
Contractors must respond to reports within 90 minutes.
“When you report those incidents, it is actually a good thing — they record what they are, they build up their own data, they figure out where some of the trending areas are, so they can adjust their maintenance operations accordingly,” said Kinnear.
For problems between Castlegar and Trail and Rossland call Emcon at 1-866-353-3136. For problems between Castlegar and Nelson call Yellowhead Road and Bridge (YRB) at 1-888-352-0356.