Group says road closures and fatalities in northwest are unacceptable
BY LINDSAY BRISCOE
When Ear Falls resident Steven Smith first started the Facebook group “Highway 105. Residents for Better Roads” he never dreamed it would go where it’s gone.
By this morning, a little over a week after its inception, nearly 1,500 people had joined, many uploading photos of highways in various conditions complete with vehicle accidents, road closures and personal stories about the trials and tribulations of trying to get from point A to point B in northwestern Ontario in the winter.
Smith, who grew up in the Ear Falls area, says road conditions have deteriorated in his lifetime, but especially in recent years.
“I travelled on a school bus to high school like every one else from Rat Falls. In my 4 years of (high) school I can only remember one time the busses were cancelled. I remember being let out early to get home before big storms covered the road,” he said, in an e-mail. “I have been traveling to the mine for 8 winters now and some times we show up late some times we turnaround and call in for highway conditions. This winter and last winter were the worst roads I’ve seen in my 8 years of commuting.”
“The reported fatality in the accident last night (Nov. 27) between Kenora and Vermillion Bay is what every one is afraid of,” he added.
The Ministry of Transportation (MTO) says its snow and ice control standards are consistent with the best practices in North America. MTO communications coordinator, Annemarie Piscopo says the MTO has been hiring contractors to provide snow and ice removal services since the 1980s and the contractors are expected to maintain those standards.
“The contract has specific performance standards that the contractor must meet and it is up to the contractor to meet these and determine when to begin maintenance operations,” says Piscopo. “For example, during a winter event there must be continuous plowing to maintain the established level of service 100 per cent of the time.”
She adds that contractors are paid a lump sum payment per year that is divided by 18 which “allows the ministry to pay 6 equal monthly payments for the summer maintenance period and 2 times the monthly summer payment for the 6 winter months.”
The contractor may be fined by the MTO if they do not meet the defined performance measures.
Standard timeframes following the end of a storm are:
-Eight hours for freeways and multi-lane highways, e.g. Highway 401, Queen Elizabeth Way, Highway 11 four-lane sections (Class 1).
-Sixteen hours for high traffic volume, two-lane highways, e.g. Highway 17, Trans-Canada (Class 2).
-Twenty-four hours for medium traffic volume, two-lane highways, e.g. Highway 35 (Class 3).
-Twenty-four hours to centre bare for low volume, two-lane highways, e.g. Highway 516 (Class 4).
Maintenance contractor staff is responsible for providing the MTO regional offices with road condition reports up to four times daily. The MTO uses the information to update road conditions on its website – a service that members of the Facebook group have criticized for being inaccurate.
Transfield Services, the contractor that signed a 12-year ice and snow removal services contract with the MTO for the Kenora area in 2012, did not respond to interview requests by the time of press.
Members of the Facebook group have spearheaded a demonstration to draw attention to road conditions in northwestern Ontario. It will take place this Saturday Dec. 7 from 10 a.m. to noon at the junction of Hwy 17 and Hwy 105 in Vermillion Bay.
The MTO acquired 42 new snowplows for northern Ontario this year, nine of which have been deployed in the northwest, as follows:
-Kenora Area Maintenance Contract (AMC): 6 units on Hwy 17
-Thunder Bay West AMC: 3 units on Hwy 17
-Thunder Bay East AMC: zero units added
The MTO says the additional equipment will be used primarily to clear passing and truck climbing lanes more quickly and will further improve service levels.