Our ‘lifelines’

A recent night trip from Red Lake to Ear Falls and back for work was a real white-knuckler for me. The snow on Highway 105 had been slicked down to glare ice. With the temperature reaching close to -30 degrees that day and the two days prior, it certainly would’ve been too cold for salt application, but I didn’t spot a grain of sand either. Each time a vehicle passed me heading the other direction, I held my breath. I knew there was a shoulder (I’ve seen it in the summer) but whenever I inched over to make more room, I felt my tires catching and pulling hard to the right – toward the ditch.

Since the Facebook group “Highway 105. Residents For Better Roads” was in its infancy I’ve been perusing the site to see what people are saying, but the stories, photos and “travel safe” wishes from one driver to the other go up faster than I can manage to view them. The online group has attracted close to 2,000 people since it started not too long ago.

Even apart from online activity, it seems like everywhere I go, someone’s got something to say about our highways and how they’re maintained – everyone from the elderly to high school students driving everything from 4 bangers to 4X4s.

The one common thread in every conversation is that highway conditions have been progressively getting worse. I agree. I grew up in Cochenour and can’t remember a time with so many cars lining our ditches as well as pile-ups and fatal accidents in the region.

If we must continue with private contractors supplying us with the basic essential service of highway maintenance, then we must continue to pressure our government to hold those contractors accountable.

Contractors are allotted specific timeframes to bring a highway to bare pavement standards. Those timeframes are determined by how busy the highway is. While the 401 is certainly one of the busiest in the country, Highway 17 – especially between the Manitoba border and Vermillion Bay – is narrow with treacherous dips and corners and lined with rock cuts. There may be less traffic on northern highways but because of their condition, accidents are more common and often fatal. After all, that stretch of Highway 17 didn’t earn the name the “death corridor” without good reason. Highway 105 is similarly dangerous. It must also be noted that both highways are much busier than they used to be. The MTO should consider both the level of traffic as well as the condition of the highway in highway classification.

Next, if the winter maintenance program is governed by MTO contract standards and specifications, perhaps it’s time to raise the bar on those contract standards and specifications. Because if you ask anyone around here, they’re not being met. Or if they are, they’re not good enough. At the same time, fines levied to contractors for non-compliance should be increased.

MTO personnel should also be the ones checking and updating the changing road and weather conditions – not the contractors themselves. There have been numerous times I’ve checked the MTO road conditions map and it’s been so off the mark, it’s laughable.

Finally, either winter maintenance budgets need to be increased or the contractors should be held accountable for how the money is spent. When I asked the MTO last week about the winter maintenance budget, I was told the lump sum payment is divided by 18 for the year with six equal payments for the summer maintenance period and two times the monthly summer payment for the six winter months. I never received an answer about what happens to money that isn’t used during any given month – neither from the MTO nor the contractor for our area.

I understand the province is under severe financial pressure. We’re still spending way more than we’re bringing in. Last month, the provincial deficit was sitting at around (a whopping) $11.7 billion.

As we move forward, investment in infrastructure, roads and jobs skills training has never been more crucial – and what population would better understand that than Northerners like us who are almost exclusively dependent on a resource extraction industry that’s certainly seen better days. But it shouldn’t come at the expense of essential services. Everyone in this province deserves to be safe, especially when we have one road to travel to get to work, school and other basic necessities like medical appointments.

Ontario is talking about investing billions of dollars in the North so we can get new industrial projects off the ground as well as move goods and people and boost our economy. But if the people who end up travelling those roads are risking their lives doing so, we aren’t any further ahead, are we?

Lindsay Briscoe

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