DAWSON CREEK, B.C – Mayor Lori Ackerman led the pressure with her questions to provincial officials on winter road maintenance through the Pine Pass on Thursday during a Peace River Regional District meeting.
The winter conditions on Highway 97 were talked about at length when Katherine Styba and Darrell Gunn from the Ministry of Transportation spoke to the PRRD.
“I actually gave up asking questions. I’ve been hung up on and told that nothing has changed, so I don’t even know what else to say. The road through the Pine Pass, I’ve been driving for decades, and the winter maintenance has been quite nasty, last winter as well as this winter,” says Fort St. John Mayor Lori Ackerman.
Ackerman added Styba had sent her the technical aspects that are to be followed by contractors, who were hired in 2019.
“If the technical aspects of the contracts have not changed, then the only thing that I can assume as your new contractor has a different interpretation of those technical aspects.”
Styba, the Peace district’s ministry manager, agreed there have been issues with the two new contractors in both the South and North Peace.
“There have been some hiccups along the way and some growing pains, and definitely a steep learning curve. But that aside, we’re working towards not having the situations that you’re talking about, says Styba.
“It’s difficult for me to hear that. But, it’s also a part of what we do, taking information from public figures such as yourself as well as members of the public and really trying to incorporate that in our maintenance response and trying to do a better job moving forward.”
The highway is the only connection for north residents to the rest of the province.
“It’s just really sad because we’ve got young families that have to get down there for medical situations,” says Ackerman.
She follows this up by saying the Class A highway’s conditions wouldn’t be seen as acceptable anywhere else in the province.
The province defines Class A roads with a higher volume, higher speed routes and is supposed to be the province’s first priority during a winter storm event.
Other Board members weighed in on their concerns with the route including the road not being driveable for certain vehicles, that the ministry increases its budget, and that drivers also need to take responsibility.
“We still have too many drivers that drive too fast. They put their vehicle in four-wheel drive, they think they can go anywhere, anytime, and they sometimes get into trouble, which creates trouble for everybody else,” says Electoral Director Karen Goodings.
Having had discussion’s with ministry staff, Electoral Director Dan Rose mentions a sense of frustration.
“…as far as oversight goes, and what the tools they have, in order to really enforce anything, it kind of forces them onto a defensive mode, when they take complaints rather than being more objective to them. I think that’s unfortunate,” says Rose.
“I’ve lived here my whole life, and the problems don’t change that much. We have a lack of consistency as far as how we do our maintenance, even within the same company. When you cross boundaries of different areas, the conditions can change, you can draw a line in the road.”
Gunn, who was appointed executive director for the northern region in August 2020, recognizes the road’s conditions after taking the route recently. He adds the temperatures have been lower than -9°C, which has made it difficult to maintain the road.
According to the province, when warmer than -9°C, the roads must be completely cleared within 24 hours of a snow storm.
“I did get to experience it just last week, going over in a snowstorm and then going back on icy, compact conditions.”
” I can understand the frustration of that because I also did have to slow down, and it did take me a while to get over.”
With the feedback received, Gunn says it would be brought with contractors during “the next round of contracts”.
According to Gunn, provincial consistency reviews are done twice a year to go over specifications are doing, and how contractors are performing.
Ackerman suggests the province collect feedback from user groups when conducting the reviews.
“When you ask these questions, you have to be brave and hear what is impacting the residents who use the highways, but I think it might give you a perspective, that might create a, a slightly different contract that would be interpreted differently by the contract holders,” says Ackerman.
“I’ve been driving that highway for decades. This particular contract has been significantly different.”
A full review must be completed before the contract is put out to tender. Currently, the contracts are for 10 years.