Brian Laurence feels lucky to be alive. While driving back from Salmon Arm last weekend, he hit a patch of black ice, causing his SUV to spin out and flip onto its roof near the Enchanted Forest.
And he blames the highway maintenance contractor for not doing their job.
“There’s no sand on that road. HMC is not doing their job,” Laurence told the Times Review. “The guy ahead of me slipped. I slipped. My traction control took over and I went into the ditch, on my roof. And I have A1 snow tires.”
HMC Services, which as of the start of 2015 is part of Emcon Services, a highway maintenance company based in Merritt, B.C., has been in charge of maintaining the roads around Revelstoke since 2003. Their domain includes about 100 kilometres of the Trans-Canada Highway east and west of Revelstoke, as well as Highway 23 from Mica to just south of the ferry, and an area around Trout Lake.
As accidents and closures have mounted on the Trans-Canada this year, HMC has come under fire for the condition of the roads.
“We have to poke a stick at them because they have to either get on it or get out,” said Laurence.
Clint Lenzi, who owns Sure Haul Transportation was also critical about highway maintenance in an interview late last year.
“It seems like it takes an awful long time to get snow off the roads in this area,” he told me. “I don’t know if it’s the contractor or the equipment or just the accumulation of snow we get in this area, it just seems like it takes a ton of time to get our roads back into good shape even after the storm front has left.”
The B.C. Ministry of Transportation sets out the winter maintenance standards for the province’s highways.
The contractor is expected to monitor the weather and prepare for incoming storms by deploying resources in advance.
On the Trans-Canada, which is a Class A road, plowing must start when four centimetres of snow accumulates. Plowing of slush and removal of broken, compact snow must be completed within 90 minutes of the storm ending. They have four days to push snow beyond the edge of the shoulder.
Contractors are expected to deal with slippery conditions by applying abrasives or other chemicals either in advance, or immediately after being notified of a problem. The guidelines set out the time frame in which they are expected to fix issues caused by ice and snow.
Derek Thur is the operations manager for HMC. Last Wednesday, after a major storm dumped up to a metre of snow on area highways in 48 hours, I joined him as he drove out west while crews were cleaning up avalanche debris from control work that morning.
We passed a line of trucks parked west of town, waiting for the highway to open; it had been closed for almost 36 hours.
As we made our way to Three Valley Gap, he talked about the challenges of maintaining the highways around Revelstoke.
“We’re always monitoring the weather,” he told me. A radio room is staffed 24 hours a day through the winter, monitoring the weather and coordinating maintenance activity. When a storm is approaching, they’re notified and they begin preparations. The trucks are fuelled up and plow blades changed. The roads are salted or coated in a brine to prevent icing. Plow trucks are sent out to strategic locations so they can begin plowing right away.
HMC has 13 trucks in the Revelstoke area that are responsible for almost 350 kilometres of highway. They also use loaders to bail out avalanche areas, and they make use of contractors when needed. There’s eight people working a standard shift, and workers are called in on their days off during a storm event.
For Thur, the Trans-Canada west of Revelstoke presents the bigger challenge. “It’s more shaded, it’s more windy, it’s more bridges, you have to deal with Three Valley Gap. It’s a more challenging highway,” he said. “Changing conditions — you can have snow, you can have slush you can have black ice all within 30 miles.”
East of Revelstoke, heading towards Rogers Pass, the road is at a higher elevation, so it’s more reliably snowy. It’s also wider, there are fewer bridges and its on the north side of the valley, so it gets more sun. “It’s a challenge. I have to take my hat off to our workers because they put in some long hours some days to keep this road safe,” he said.
How good a job does HMC do at maintaing the roads? The Ministry of Transportation monitors the roads and reviews the contractors work. I requested copies of those reports, but instead we only received an e-mail response from Adam Robert, a ministry spokesperson, outlining the government’s responsibilities.
Robert wrote the ministry monitors road conditions and maintenance performance during storm events and the contractors performance is audited throughout the winter. The contractor’s performance is reviewed annually.
The Times Review made a second request for the audit reports, but it was not followed up on by press time.
How does Thur respond to people like Laurence, who say the highway isn’t being adequately maintained?
“I know people would like a bare road at all times but in this country with the heavy snowfall it’s impossible to do that,” said Thur, who started his highway maintenance career as a plow driver. “You can drive down a road, it can be bare and wet, all of a sudden you get a clearing at night and it will ice up within 15 minutes of you going by.
“Black ice is a reality and we deal with that as quickly as we can.”
The Enchanted Forest area, where Laurence rolled over, is particularly challenging because it’s flanked by water to the north and a steep slope to the south. “It’s prone to icing up,” said Thur.
For Thur, the biggest problem is people don’t drive to conditions. “People have to drive to conditions, but I can tell you they don’t,” he said.
“There’s always going to be times you’re going to have slush, you’re going to have compact snow and you’re going to get slippery sections. It’s up to the general public to know that.”