It has snowed more this winter than it did throughout all of last winter, and it’s only half way through the season. The quality of road maintenance in the East Kootenay has been a hotly debated issue this year, and on Jan 20, provincial authorities addressed the issue.
East Kootenay MLA, Bill Bennett, and Jack Bennetto, District Manager for the Ministry of Transportation agreed on one fundamental factor: Mainroad’s contractors are meeting the province’s specifications to 95 per cent satisfaction.
“There is no evidence that this is a particularly bad year in terms of maintenance, there is no evidence that the contractor is doing an unusually bad job. They get graded on a regular basis by the ministry, scored. They have fairly high scores,” said Bennett, adding that Mainroads’ performance has drastically improved since last year.
Bennetto echoed his feelings, adding certain details.
“We monitor them regularly. This year we have done more than 300 on site audits or reviews and they are meeting our expectations, especially on the primary roads,” said Bennetto. “We are generally happy with the performance Mainroad is delivering. Our monitoring reports indicate that they are very close to 95 per cent within specification. So the five per cent is where we can continue to work with them.”
Mainroad has received criticism from the public recently. A Facebook group named Taking Back East Kootenay Highways has gained traction, and now has over 2,100 members. The group’s mandate, as stated on their Facebook page, is to stop Mainroad from renewing their contract with the province, which is up for renewal this year.
“The purpose of this group is to get them off that contract. It is our tax dollars that fill that order and if we are not happy we must stand up,” read the group’s description.
But according to the facts that Bennett and Bennetto were citing, road incidents are the lowest they have been in a decade.
“Certainly the evidence would indicate, after the considerable investment that has gone into our highways our roads are actually safer today than they were 10 years ago,” said Bennett. “They are not perfect. But the evidence does not support the claim that they are doing a terrible job.”
Bennetto said accidents in the area have reduced by 50 per cent in recent years.
“[Incidents] were very close to 200, just slightly over 200, 10 years ago and now our annual incidents on the highway are 100,” said Bennetto, adding he wasn’t sure how many incidents resulted in fatalities.
The province contracted the maintenance of the highways out. Bennett cited it as the most effective way to maintain the roads.
“…I would say is that this group wants to return the maintenance of the provincial highways back to the public sector. They have never accepted the decision that was made decades and decades ago to allow the private sector to maintain highways in British Columbia. That is not going to happen – it is the most efficient, cost effective way to maintain our highways,” he said.
The deadline for contractors to submit a proposal to the province is Feb. 18, and Bennetto said there are a handful of interested parties, other than Mainroad.
“We’ve had a lot of people looking around, some international companies. Certainly, at least one from Alberta and one from Ontario and of course in B.C. the road builders that deliver maintenance throughout B.C.,” he said. “How many of those are putting forward formal bids, we will only really know when the bids close.”
Bennetto also said they have tightened up some of the specifications outlined in the contract, hopefully leading to improving the highways.
“After a snowfall; we have defined that more specifically too, in terms of when a snowflake is the last snowflake that falls at a weather station for a three hour period. They are expected to clean [the roads] in a certain number of hours, and that is dependent on the class of road. So the primary roads are under 24 hours and the other roads have longer periods to respond to,” he said, adding other changes include details to chemical use and size of the sand used.
“We have made a number of adjustments to the contract where we would expect to see further improvements.”
The next provincial election is still over a year away, but Bennett said issues become politicized about 18 months before an election, and this might be an example of that.
“What I could tell you is that every election cycle, about a year to a year and half before the election, there are efforts made to create controversy and negativity towards me and the government,” he said. “It’s something that I’m accustomed to and expected so there is an element of that with some people involved with this group. But there are also people involved with this group, for the best of reasons, for the best of intentions.”
“All we can go by is the evidence, and the evidence indicates there are far fewer incidents on our highways,” he continued, “As Jack Bennetto said, probably about half of what there was 10 years ago.”