Poor road clearing after a New Year's Eve snowstorm sent buses and cars into ditches throughout the Sunshine Coast and left some people on the northern end of the peninsula still stranded at home five days after the storm. The phone calls of complaint soon jammed the voice mail system of Emcon, the highways maintenance contractor.
Snowed-in residents then turned in frustration to MLA Harold Long and local governments, although the provincial Ministry of Highways, not the Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD), is responsible for clearing roads in the rural areas. Sargeant Bay Hill in Halfmoon Bay and the south-facing slopes in Garden Bay were some of the most dangerous areas, sending many vehicles into the ditch and causing crashes.
Sechelt and Gibsons, which are responsible for their own snow plowing, had their roads clear within a day or two of the storm. But Emcon struggled unsuccessfully to clear, salt and sand the roads in the rural areas. Much of Halfmoon Bay, including the heavily-travelled Redrooffs Road, still was not plowed by Jan. 5.
"If we have a medical emergency, there are six kilometres of unplowed road between us and the highway. This is not acceptable to me," wrote Jan Jensen, who lives on Wescan Road in Halfmoon Bay. "I have lived on the Coast for 12 years through several severe snowfalls, and this year is the worst service by far."
Charlotte Mallory, who said her car was "totalled" when she got stuck on Sargeant Bay Hill and another driver skidded into her, could not get through to Emcon by phone and had to ask police to deliver a message to Emcon.
"They used to plow Wildwood, now they don't even plow Redrooffs! I would still have a car," wrote Mallory.
Because of the impassable roads, bus service and garbage pick-up were cancelled in Halfmoon Bay, and in parts of Elphinstone, Roberts Creek, Hopkin's Landing and Grantham's Landing. People who missed garbage day because of the snow may put out two garbage cans the following week.
"In my 15 years of driving a bus on the Coast, I have never seen the [rural] roads neglected as they have been during this rather minor storm," reported Bill Davey, Sunshine Coast Transit manager. "Both Sechelt and Gibsons have done a super job through this, absolutely super."
The Sunshine Coast Regional District called an emergency meeting Jan. 5 with Ministry of Highways manager Don Legault and Wayne James, Emcon's Sunshine Coast division manager. Though SCRD chair Ed Steeves said the meeting should not be a "bashing session," other regional directors could not restrain their frustration.
John Rees, director for Pender Harbour, said Emcon's decision to stop staffing its Madeira Park works yard left the northern end of the peninsula unprepared for a major snowfall.
Rees said Emcon has repeatedly cut staff and equipment and now have only half the staff here that they had several years ago.
"We're in a bloody disaster area in Pender Harbour and Egmont," said Rees. "Madeira Park to Trout Lake was packed snow, very slippery The side roads are almost impassable."
Legault told the SCRD directors that Emcon's contract requires them to clear all side roads within 48 hours of when snowfall stops. The regional district is asking the Ministry of Highways to penalize Emcon for not meeting that contract.
"Pender Harbour and Egmont people pay First World taxes for Third World services, as far as the Ministry of Highways is concerned," said Rees. "Either the provincial government is pressuring the contractor, or the contractor is shaving everything to the bone."
James, who took charge of Emcon's Sunshine Coast operations only two weeks before the storm, said he could not explain why Emcon cut back its staffing and equipment on the Sunshine Coast in recent years.
"Remember, we had three or four years with no snow. Now we got a couple of days with snow . . . I'm trying to do the best I can. I'm trying to find more people and more equipment," said James. "We're running 24-7 with all the people and equipment we have available."
After eight years of holding the highway maintenance contract on the Sunshine Coast, Emcon recently lost that contract to a lower bidder, Capilano Highway Services. Emcon is still responsible for road clearing until that new contract comes into effect in April. James would not comment on speculations that Emcon's road clearing problems were connected to losing the contract.
Although the SCRD is not responsible for snow clearing, the regional board decided to take some action in an effort to ensure better service in the future. The SCRD has asked to be considered as a potential contractor when the highways maintenance contract is tendered in future and is initiating an equipment-sharing agreement with Sechelt and Gibsons so in future, after the towns finish plowing their roads, their equipment could be rented for use on the rural roads.