MOTI, Emcon provide context in highway maintenance debate

The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure refuted claims at a city council meeting.

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.

“We have been told that the specifications will be an improvement,” said Lawson, who says they welcome the improvements.

“It will be an increased cost, but with a new contract, everybody is on the same page.”

He explained that the level of road maintenance is just like other things in society — more police, more hospitals, more schools, more doctors.

“Where is the standard? People want it bare and wet all winter, they don’t realize what the cost would be — we all work within budgetary limits.”

Some people have questioned if improvements to the road such as a centre barrier or rumble strips would help reduce accidents.

MOTI district manager Hugh Eberle explained that in order to add a centre barrier, you have to change the lane widths and there is not enough space on the existing road to accommodate it.

“You don’t typically go in after the fact to put up barriers — they are part of the whole design of a system. The second thing is — is it actually warranted? Do you actually need a barrier? Because barriers on a highway are also an obstacle for the driver,” said Eberle. “You are looking at finding out what the problem is and the barrier may or may not be a solution to that problem.”

“We look at all the conditions that can cause an accident or an incident on the highway and then if there were some appropriate measures that we could do, then we certainly would,” he added.

As for the rumble strips, they will likely be considered the next time that the road is resurfaced. Installing them in existing asphalt is not very successful. The section of road between Castlegar and Trail is not slated for replacement in the next four years, but Eberle explained that the highway is assessed annually and if deterioration happens sooner, the time frame could be moved up.

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