Where’s the Grader?

Trent Ernst, Editor

It’s one of the biggest complaints about driving in the north in winter: the roads aren’t being maintained properly. 
However, when most people say this, they really mean “the roads aren’t being maintained to the standard that I’d like them to be if I were in charge and had an unlimited budget.”
Alas, I am not in charge, and there is a limited budget for road maintenance. There is also an official description of what “proper” means. 
First, though, a bit of background. There are six levels of highways in BC when it comes to maintenance. A Class A highway is the most popular routes that see the most traffic. The Trans Canada is a Class A Highway, as is the section of Highway 97 between Chetwynd and Dawson Creek, as there are a lot of people who travel between these communities for work. 
Heading west from Chetwynd on Highway 97, the majority of the traffic is long-haul traffic, not commuter traffic, so the number of vehicles along this section is far less. This portion of the highway is a Class B highway, meaning it isn’t maintained as frequently as a Class A highway. Highway 52 from Dawson and Highway 29 from Chetwynd are also Class B highways. 
South of Tumbler Ridge, Highway 29 is considered a Class B highway to the Quintette turnoff. While it is maintained as a class B route to the Peace River turn-off, technically the highway is rated as Class C past this point. More on that later. 
These three designations form the bulk of highway designations in the Peace Region, though there are also Class D roads (school bus routes, mostly), a few class E roads (regularly maintained, light use) and a handful of Class F roads (that might see a grader once or twice a year). 
Scott Maxwell, District Manager for the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (Peace District) says that he always hears more complaints about maintenance at this time of year. “When we look at the classification of the highways, we look at where the traffic comes in, and look at what residents and industry are saying and what our maintenance contractors are experiencing. If they see where the class lines don’t make sense, we look into it.”
Maxwell says that over the last few years, the Ministry has stopped looking at how much stuff the maintenance contractor has and looks at the results. “We leave the resource levels to our contractors. When we do our audit, we don’t focus on how many trucks or graders they have. We look at are the roads safe, and are they being maintained to standard?”
In years like this, says Maxwell, it’s tough on the contractors. “We’ve had almost as much snow in the first two months as we have all year. It doesn’t matter if you have a hundred trucks out there, you’re not going to get the snow cleared. It comes down to priorities.”
Which brings us back to the section of road from the Quintette turnoff to the turnoff to Peace River Coal. Earlier in the year, a number of people observed that this section of road had much more snow buildup. And while it’s true the section is designated as a Class C road, it’s not true that section is not being maintained, says Lee Davis, Cariboo Road Service’s Tumbler Ridge Foreman. 
“We go right to Peace River Turnoff, and we always have,” says Davis. “We do understand there are people in those buses and we want to make sure that the roads are safe.”
“In fact, we do that right when we head out, then do 52 North and 29 South, so we’re not babysitting that area. We start at 4:30, and they don’t go out there until 6. With those couple of storms we had there, by the time we plowed out to Brassey and back, it looks like we hadn’t plowed. But we had.” Davis echos Maxwell’s words, saying “it’s just impossible to keep up sometimes.”
In addition to the roads maintained by highways, there are industry roads, like the Murray Forest Service Road, that are maintained by users, and roads inside municipalities, which are maintained by those municipalities. “There’s an agreement provincially between the Districts and the Ministry of Highways,” says Maxwell. “The ministry continues to maintain highway through town, while the municipality takes care of any snow build-up on the sides of the roads, and on the sidewalks, if any.” 
There are no highways that pass through Tumbler Ridge, meaning that all the roads fall under municipal responsibility. New Operations Manager Doug Beale says that maintaining the roads in town are a balance between safety and budget. “Normally we really don’t want to start clearing right in the middle of a snowstorm, because we’ll have to do it again,” says Beale. “We’ll get a certain amount of accumulation before we send all the equipment out. It depends on the snow and on the storm. We’ll do our best to keep the roads open and sanded, but every time we go around, the cost goes up. We’ll do the main arteries with the first pass. Then we’ll start going into residential, taking the grader and the holder in, bring the snow up into berms.”
Once the streets are plowed, says Beale, then the sand trucks head out. No sense in sending them out beforehand, as all the sand will just get plowed up, he says. It can get slick, especially at corners, says Beale. “The rules apply on district streets as apply to highways; you drive to conditions. That said, if you’re sliding through the intersection, you can call town hall and let them know. At the end of the day safety is definitely first: safety of residents, workers, etc. I have the responsibility to make sure our budget costs are not out of control. It’s not easy, sometimes. This winter came early, we had snow about a month before when we normally do.”