With the first dose of winter on the Coast hitting the roads and highways on Monday, some residents are questioning the quality of highway maintenance being provided by Capilano Highway Services.
Gail Fredricksen, who works at a booming sort on Twin Creeks Road in Port Mellon, said local businesses along the road co-operate to plow if necessary. She finds it unacceptable that Capilano Highways is unable to take care of the highway that connects them with the rest of the Coast.
"That's the only major road they have to keep open, and they seem to have difficulty doing that," she said. While Capilano Highways, in fact, takes care of all roads on the Coast except for those in Gibsons and Sechelt, the past couple of weeks have left many drivers concerned that they're not deploying their de-icing trucks quickly enough. When some sections of Highway 101 were covered in black ice last Tuesday (Nov. 20), Fredricksen said road conditions near the Langdale ferry terminal weren't improved until after the 8:20 a.m. sailing. It's a scenario she said was ongoing last winter, to the point that ferry-bound buses had to stop at the top of the bypass road and have passengers walk down the hill to the terminal, rather than risk driving the icy stretch of downhill. However, the Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD) said the situation has improved this year.
"We've gotten a pretty good response recently from Capilano Highways," said Brian Sagman, manager of transportation and facility services for the SCRD. "I noticed trucks were out at 4 a.m. [Tuesday] morning." Mike Becker, Capilano Highways' manager for the Sunshine Coast, said the crews anticipate the weather, listen to public input and run a 24-hour patrol to stay on top of snow and ice. He said a supply crunch in road salt has affected highways crews across B.C., but hasn't depleted Capilano Highways' stockpile. Becker said existing supplies should be able to last the winter, and more can be purchased if necessary. He emphasized budget is not a limitation to emergency service. Evan Stewart, a spokesperson for the B.C. Gov-ernment Employees Union (BCGEU), to which Capilano Highways workers belong, said highways contractors in general have been slow to react to dangerous road conditions.
"These companies are expected to anticipate black ice, not react to it," said Stewart. The problems began nearly 20 years ago, he said, when highway maintenance was privatized across B.C., and contractors were hired to maintain the 28 different highway service areas established across the province.
"In a lot of cases, these contracts went to the lowest bidder, and now they can't pull it off - we're hearing this more and more across B.C.," he said. In response, the BCGEU is preparing to send out a video they've compiled, along with the province's highway maintenance guide, to MLAs, fire departments and other highway stakeholders across B.C. in an effort to give people the information they'll need to hold highways contractors accountable, Stewart said. Gibsons Mayor Barry Janyk, who's also the head of the SCRD's transportation committee, said he's been hearing how upset people are at the state of the highway. However, he said, things have "improved substantially" in recent weeks.
The Coast isn't the only part of B.C. that's experienced problems with highway maintenance in the winter.
Last year, the province fined one contractor for poor snow removal on the Coquihalla Highway, while a Port Alberni highway operator came under fire for using oversize sand that was akin to gravel, which caused numerous broken windshields.
Fredrickson plans to pursue the issue by appearing before council at the next Town of Gibsons meeting. She's also starting a petition aimed at the Ministry of Transportation, to encourage them to keep Highway 101 driveable in the winter. When enough signatures have been collected, Powell River-Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons plans to bring it forth in the B.C. legislature.