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Posted: January 20, 2016

Mainroad hitting 95% of targets: Bennetto

With one of the winter’s biggest overnight dumps of snow still being cleared away, provincial authorities addressed ongoing concerns about East Kootenay highways maintenance this afternoon.

And a key message from both Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett, speaking on the phone from Prince George, and Jack Bennetto, Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) District Highways Manager, is Mainroad East Kootenay is mostly meeting the standards laid out by the provincial government.

“We’re generally happy with their performance. They are 95% within specifications (outlined in their contract with MOTI),” Bennetto said during a conference call with local media, adding his staff are working on ensuring they improve in the final five per cent.

He explained Mainroad is meeting standards on primary roads (main highways and routes) and the five per cent drop off is on secondary routes.

“There has been a lot of constant snow fall and we’ve had some complaints,” he said.

Bennett said getting complaints about winter road conditions has been a norm in his 15 years as MLA, admitting he has taken Mainroad to task himself, most notably last year when a surge of complaints were directed at his office and MOTI.

“This year, up until Christmas, I had fewer complaints about Mainroad’s operations than any other year. Mainroad really struggled last year. I think they’ve stepped up this year and are doing a better job,” Bennett said.

Take Back East Kootenay Highways members protest in front of Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett's office Jan. 20. Chad St. Pierre Photography image
Take Back East Kootenay Highways members protest in front of Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett’s office Jan. 20. Chad St. Pierre Photography image

He said a similar comment he made a couple of weeks ago “stirred up” commentary on the popular Facebook group page Taking Back East Kootenay Highways, which held a protest in front of his Cranbrook office this morning (Jan. 20).

Bennett suggested some among the 2,129 member social media group are playing politics by insisting that regional highways are badly maintained, noting they’d rather see highways maintenance returned to the public sector.

“That’s not going to happen,” he said, stating contracting the service out to the private sector has been “the most cost efficient way to maintain our highways” and would cost more to taxpayers if left to the public sector/government.

“There is a political dimension to this (the complaints),” Bennett said, before admitting he also acknowledges there are people with “the best of intentions and reasons” for having concerns and expressing them.

Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett
Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett

However, he also noted there are fewer accidents occurring on East Kootenay highways over the past 10 years (between 2005-2014).

“The evidence I have in front of me is we have considerably fewer accidents than five years ago. The evidence indicates our roads are actually safer today than 10 years ago. There is no evidence (that conditions are worse),” he said.

“They’re not perfect. Every once in a while they fail to do something that is not best practice. And we do need to make sure our roads are safe for people to drive on,” he said.

Bennetto said Mainroad received a reduction in payment last year for not meeting contractual obligations, as per reports from MOTI staff monitoring work being done.

“We’re happy with their work this year. They are meeting our expectations, especially on primary roads,” he said, agreeing with Bennett that highways have been safer the past 10 years.

Highway incidents are down by half, from 200 to 100 a year over that time, he said, admitting he isn’t sure if fatality accidents are down or not.

“Fatality (rates) are higher in the summer than in the winter,” he pointed out.

Mainroad's Sparwood compound.
Mainroad’s Sparwood compound.

The province has spent a considerable amount of money on Highway 3 and Highway 43 in the past decade, Bennett said, outlining that all bridges between Fernie and the Alberta border have been replaced during his tenures in office. And resurfacing work remains ongoing and passing lanes have been added.

Bennetto said some changes have been implemented since last year, with Mainroad using different mixtures of chemicals (salts, brines mixed with sand) and more changes will happen as needed.

An example, he explained, is a new chemical mixture is being applied to Highway 3 through the Elk Valley, that works better in colder weather.

“The roads are bare and wet more than they have been,” he said. “What we learn from this we’ll add to our next contract. We’ve made a number of adjustments to the contract where we expect to see some improvements.”

Mainroad’s contract expires this year and bids close on Feb. 18.

“We’ve had a lot of people looking around” at the contract, Bennetto said, noting the spread of companies likely interested range from international to B.C., with at least one from Alberta and another from Ontario in the possible mix.

“We’ll really only find out when the bids close” as to what MOTI will have to work with, Bennetto said.

Concluding, Bennett said East Kootenay drivers must always remember where they live – in the mountains.

“You are always going to have bad weather in the winter” and drivers have to adjust to often-changing conditions, he said.

Note: e-KNOW will have a photo(s) of this morning protest later today.

Ian Cobb/e-KNOW

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