Last week, following a brutal winter storm in the Elk Valley, Mainroad Contracting received a lot of public backlash after two local residents created the Facebook page Taking Back East Kootenay Highways in order to generate a public conversation about the roadways and the lack of service they believe Mainroad is providing.
As of Monday, December 8, after less than a week since being created, the group attracted nearly 1,600 members who have been posting photos, complaints, questions about current road conditions and warnings to local Elk Valley drivers.
Co-creator Morgan Owen said she started the group to bring awareness to the issue and to attempt to get Mainroad withdrawn from their Ministry of Transportation (MOT) contract, which is up in 2016.
“My family drives these roads every day. I have to drive these roads sometimes and I’m scared,” she said. “I’m scared to send my husband out to work in Sparwood when the roads are like this. It’s a death trap.”
Like thousands of other Teck employees, Owen’s husband travels to Sparwood four mornings a week.
“A lot of them are forced to commute on these roads,” she said. “You’ve got no choice but to go to work.”
MLA Bill Bennett agreed that the highway maintenance is limited, noting that he has received a lot of negative feedback from his constituents.
“There’s been several years, and certainly two years consecutive now, where at the beginning of the season, [with] first snows and freezing rains and winds and so forth, we’ve had an abnormally high level of complaints from the public, particularily in the Elk Valley,” Bennett said, adding that he spoke with Mainroad representatives in Victoria and Cranbrook prior to the storm that hit the valley and they assured him there would not be a repeat of poor maintenance this season. “I was feeling pretty good about the upcoming winter season and the maintenance plans and then it just all fell apart. The message is that the people are really unhappy with the level of maintenance.”
In response to the Facebook page, Bennett added, “The Facebook page, in my opinion, is more a way for people to vent, it’s not having any particular impact on the way I do my job. I work for my constituents and I always have and that’s why I get re-elected.”
Two days after the Facebook page was created, Mainroad issued a press release responding to their recent highway maintenance.
“The past few weeks have been very challenging for highway maintenance operations throughout the Kootenays,” the press release stated. “Two occasions of warm weather, followed by rain, snow and rapidly dropping temperatures left ice buildup on the travelled lanes. Though not uncommon for the area, more severe conditions have been seen over the past two years than in previous years.”
The release went on to state, “Mainroad crews were aware of the impending weather situation well in advance, they understood what the challenges would be and were fully prepared.”
Despite their preparedness, Mainroad Contracting General Manager Al Sander said the company struggled with maintaining the roads after the ice storm hit East Kootenay.
Following a media conference, held in Cranbrook on Friday, December 5, Sander noted that rapid temperature changes, along with heavy snow and rain left Mainroad struggling to remove ice and snow off the roadways as quickly as possible.
“Primarily we concentrated on this last weird storm we had and the struggles with getting it [operations] off again,” Sander said of the conference. “The biggest trouble is when you go from heavy rain to snow. We saw some 20 degree changes in temperatures. With the rain ahead of it, it’s pretty hard to do any pre-work or anything to the road to avoid the snow from sticking.”
He went on to say, “I think everybody was frustrated with the situation, and we were too and so were our guys.”
Sander added that when the temperatures get to minus 20 degrees, there are no products available to take the ice off the roadways and that not even graters work in those freezing temperatures.
Owen, however, blames Mainroad for poor driving conditions, noting that they should have prepared for the storm before it hit.
“Had they been out prior to the storm that everybody knew about I know for a fact this wouldn’t have happened,” she said. “We didn’t see graters out until yesterday, five days after the storm.”
The Cranbrook resident said that Mainroad is not following the contract guidelines set out by the Ministry of Transportation, which includes removing a maximum allowable accumulation of 4 cm of snow within 90 minutes.
“The Ministry is making good rules, the fact of the matter is that Mainroad is not following them,” Owen said, “Why aren’t they doing what they’re supposed to be doing?”
Sander, however, said that following the storm, the MOT audited 80 roads and the roads all met MOT standards.
“Out of those 80 audits, we were told that all were within the standards as they’re laid out in the contract,” Sander said.
Sander said that hasn’t stopped individuals from calling in and voicing their complaints, sometimes in an aggressive manner.
“None of us are here to be abused,” he said, in response to verbally abusive phone calls. “I have no problems speaking with people that can respectfully disagree with me.”
He went on to say, “The people need to realize that the guys that are out there doing the work are doing the best they can in some difficult circumstances. They don’t take their jobs lightly, they’re all members of the community.”
Sander took a stance for his employees, stating, “People can take shots at the corporation and people can take shots at me, but be respectful of my people because they’re the ones out there doing the work.”
Bennett reiterated Sander’s remarks, noting that members of the public have responded to the poor road maintenance in a disrespectful manner.
“The public is not always very respectful when they talk to the people who work for me in my office,” he said. “That’s not right and people ought to be more respectful of my employees.”
Bennett said, in moving forward with resolving this issue, he spoke with a representative from the MOT on Monday, December 8 and that he has plans to discuss the Elk Valley highway maintenance in person in the near future.
As for now, Bennett advised local Elk Valley drivers to adjust their driving according to weather conditions.
“I think we all have to remember that regardless of who the maintenance provider is, you have to drive defensively in winter conditions,” Bennett noted, adding, “within that context, the contractor is obligated to do better than what’s been done so far.”