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‘We might as well be in the middle of the Himalayas:’ Highway 16 safety a concern

Port Edward mayor and councillor call on ministry of transportation for greater diligence

Issues are becoming increasingly salty around the alleged lack of Highway 16 winter road maintenance, with Port Edward’s mayor and council voicing concerns over the deteriorating roads, snow plowing and ice remediation between the district municipality, Prince Rupert and Terrace.

Ice build-up covering the road surface is making driving conditions dangerous plus lack of snow plowing or removal is compacting snow and ice on the road making extra need for caution, Knut Bjorndal, mayor of Port Edward told Black Press Media, on Jan. 4,

Areas of the highway which are reduced down to one lane because of snow buildup along the roadside are major concerns for residents of the Northcoast, he said.

“I have some real concerns about the highway… We are really disappointed. So, I sent an email to both Dan Baker, the Skeena District regional manager at the Ministry of Transportation, with a copy to Jennifer Rice the MLA,” Bjorndal said.

“The concerns are there’s not enough sand, not enough salt and the roads are not plowed to get the snow build up off in a timely manner,” he said further explaining at times in the past month he couldn’t even get into Prince Rupert because the roads were so ice or snow-covered.

“I turned around at Galloway Rapids and said ‘screw this.’”

“Ninety per cent of the population of Port Ed. work in Prince Rupert. All the services that we require are located in Prince Rupert. We are basically a bedroom community. The highways are the umbilical cord to vital services,” the mayor said.

In an attempt to address concerns in the mid-December email to MOTI, Bjorndal said not much has been remedied or changed since. He wants the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) to step up.

“They need to increase diligence in overseeing and monitoring the highways to make sure people can use them safely,” he said.

Margo Hearne, a resident of Haida Gwaii, drove from Terrace to Prince Rupert on Jan. 5. She said the roads between the two cities were sheets of ice at times and drivers could not go over 50 kilometres per hour. She said the trip was driving on compacted snow and ice, not the road surface.

North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice told Black Press Media on Jan. 5 road conditions for drivers have been pretty difficult of late and said she has reached out to the ministry to raise concerns local residents have been bringing into her office.

“It’s important to note that getting down to bare pavement is not always possible to achieve at all times,” she said. “Weather conditions can change very quickly such as going from rain to snow. It’s critical that drivers do their part and adjust their speed to the conditions.”

Port Edward councillor Murray Kristoff, who owns Kristoff Trucking, drives Highway 16 on a regular basis for work. At the December district council meeting, he expressed his concerns about snow not being cleared thus reducing the road width to just one lane in certain sections. Especially noted was a section known as ‘Car Wash Rock.’ Nothing had changed by Jan. 5, he said.

Kristoff said he believes the contractors are not plowing as wide as they could because they are worried the blades will catch on the cliff face one side and the barriers on the other.

“The road is only about 14-15 feet wide there. I’m coming through with something that’s 13 feet wide. If I meet another car there, she’s over. I mean in this day and age to go through Car Wash and Exchamsiks, at those narrow points, we might as well be in the middle of the Himalayas with goats pulling a cart.”

Kristoff added that with snow build-up he has to drive the multi-axel truck and trailer all the way to Terrace to just turn around as there is nowhere along the highway to do so due to unkempt winter road conditions. If a road closure occurs he is literally stuck there.

Bjorndal said he can remember back to the winters of 1965 and 1967 which broke some environmental weather records.

“Those are two quite snowy years and we never had this problem — even then … I did meet with highways and you know they say the contractor is having problems,” adding there may be underlying issues like equipment failures, not enough staff, and required tasks versus cost efficiency since the time the contracts were awarded.

A MOTI spokesperson said in an email that during extremely cold conditions, removal of ice and compact snow on roads and highways is very challenging, and drivers can expect these current conditions to prevail until temperatures rise.

“Winter maintenance is a top priority for the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure. Highway Maintenance in the Prince Rupert area is contracted to O’Brien’s Road and Bridge Maintenance; winter maintenance specifications are standardized throughout the province …” the email stated, referencing the weblink to the Highway Snow Removal Maintenance Specifications.

“Current conditions on Highway 16 are compact ice with slippery sections. The ministry’s maintenance contractor, O’Brien Road and Bridge is regularly patrolling the highway and sanding slippery sections as per specifications,” the MOTI spokesperson said. “O’Brien has been the highway maintenance contractor for the Port Edward area since 1981, the contract specifications have changed several times since then and the latest changes were effective in 2018, 2019.”

The $4.27 million Northcoast contract awarded to O’Brien’s in 2018 runs until Sept. 2028, according to the Highway Maintenance Value of Agreement listed online. Services extend from Highway 16 on Haida Gwaii to 55 km west of Port Edward Arterial Road intersection, from where 1206576 B.C. Ltd. doing business as Emil Anderson Maintenance takes over for the rest of the way east to Terrace. Emil Anderson Maintenance took over the $8.98 million contract from a previous servicer in July, 2020.

“Contractors have to be better monitored by the highways people to make sure they are in tiptop shape,” Bjorndal said.

O’Brien’s Road and Bridge Maintenance and Emil Anderson Maintenance did not respond to requests for comment.

 K-J Millar | Journalist 
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