Mother Nature rules the roads

“It becomes a physical impossibility to maintain all of these standards on all of these roads at all times."

  • Feb. 14, 2012 11:00 a.m.

Fluffy white snow that’s fallen in waves this winter has hit road snow clearing operations like a ton of bricks.

Nechako Northcoast, the local contractor hired by the province to maintain highways and regional district roads, has not only struggled to keep up with Mother Nature this year but has also been served with a number of non-compliance reports by the transportation ministry for sub-standard performance.

The reports, close to a dozen, were filed because Nechako didn’t clear snow up to standards set by its contract with the province. The penalties for such reports include a scolding at best, losing performance bonuses, or losing a contract all together at worst.

“There have been a number of events where there’s been no question that the roads have been outside of our standards,” said local transportation ministry official Don Ramsay, explaining the ministry has auditing programs in place to evaluate Nechako’s performance.

“Even in a tough winter such as this, while their performance is normally within our expectations, their efforts this winter have been at times overwhelmed by the severity of the weather,” he said.

Ramsay noted that Terrace has experienced 20 winter storms this year, and 220 per cent more snow accumulation for this time of year, involving five and a half metres as of last week.

Lucky for Nechako, a snow-free beginning of February provided much needed down time.

“The crews have really been worked to the breaking point,” said Nechako general manager Dan Mills. “If the snow had kept up, we wouldn’t have been able to.”

So far this winter, Nechako has spent 60 per cent more on labour than last year.

Nechako’s territory spans 90 kilometres west of Terrace, 45 kilometres east, 100 kilometres north and 60 km south and the company also has contracts with CN and Shames Mountain. It also has contracts with the province to clear away snow brought down during avalanche control work.

To keep up, the company brought in extra equipment from local contractors and when that resource was tapped, brought some in from out of town.

Five graders, used for widening roads at the shoulder where snow builds up, were added to Nechako’s existing four.

But many times, piles of snow at the sides of the road built up too high, meaning Nechako had to use large loaders, which look like massive snow plows with blades underneath, to get the job done.

“This year the snow was consistent and without break,” said Mills. “(There was) no time to remove all the snowfalls. We had to resort to more unconventional means.”

While large loaders are much slower than using graders to widen snow buildup on the road, Mills explained they were the only things that worked.

“They’re the only thing with enough raw strength to push these big windrows back,” said Mills.

But the windrows on road shoulders weren’t the biggest problem this year. The slush was. It’s the worst surface of all for tires, said Nechako vice-president Peter Lansdowne, adding packed snow is better because it’s stable.

But snow turns to slush within a few degree fluctuations, making safe roads dangerous in a snap, he continued.

“With a condition that is changing rapidly, you need to be in all places at all times,” he said. “The reality is, we just don’t have enough units to deal with it all at one time.”

When slush freezes, it can turn a surface into a washboard, making driving even more tricky.

Lansdowne explained that a provincial classification system is in place to help Nechako best use its equipment and resources.

“We concentrate on the higher speed higher traffic areas when we have (snow turning to slush),” said Lansdowne.

So as more snow fell this year, it meant more buildup on the roads and road shoulders, more volume falling from avalanche control and more falling ice to clean. All of this meant labour and equipment were stretched thin.

So, both Mills and Lansdowne let out a sigh when talking about the non-compliance reports from the province. Provincial standards include allowing no more than 4cm of snow compacted on class A highways, with snow depth rising as classes fall.

“It becomes a physical impossibility to maintain all of these standards on all of these roads at all times,” said Lansdowne.

And Ramsay is sympathetic to the challenges Nechako faced this winter.

“I wouldn’t expect there is a contractor in the province that wouldn’t have been out of standard at times this winter,” he said. “I look at the millions of cubic metres of snow this year and I’m thinking the people on the road that work for Nechako, they truly are the knights of the road.”