Snowflakes in the weather forecast for this week predictably produced a sense of dread in many islanders, who know from experience that not many vehicles are equipped for the white stuff and neither is local infrastructure.
Getting ready for the situation has been a major focus for Emcon Services, who took over the contract for road maintenance in the Southern Vancouver Island region on Oct. 1, 2019.
“We’ve been preparing all week, making sure our equipment is ready to go and crews are on call,” Emcon quality assurance manager and road safety patroller Andrew Gaetz said last Wednesday. “If people can slow down and take their time, hopefully we will get everyone home safe.”
Emcon is now responsible for the maintenance of British Columbia’s provincial highways and roads from Chemainus to Victoria, including roads to Port Renfrew, Lake Cowichan, Sooke and all roads on the six southern Gulf Islands. While this will be the company’s first test of winter in the area, the management team has moved from their previous contract on northern Vancouver Island, which included Denman, Hornby, Quadra and Malcolm islands, so they are familiar with the challenges that snow poses to similar communities.
Gaetz noted that being unprepared for snow is not just common on the smaller islands but on much of Vancouver Island as well.
“It does cause a lot of havoc,” he said. “We put on all our equipment and crew we need, but we do clear roads by priority as set by the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.”
That means main roads are cleared first, followed by feeder roads and then side roads if the crews get the chance.
Gaetz said his team is aware of many of the potential issues in the region since Emcon did a thorough survey prior to bidding on the contract, which is set for 10 years. Management have been getting more versed in the situation on the ground now that they’re here. As well, the successor agreement included keeping staff employed at local yards, retaining the knowledge base of people actually doing the maintenance work.
Emcon has also been keeping abreast of Salt Spring’s community concerns through the ASK Salt Spring program, which has fielded many questions and complaints related to local roads. Gaetz has asked that those issues be forwarded to him directly. He will also be attending the ASK Salt Spring session on Jan. 31 to hear from islanders in person.
Many of the concerns he’s heard so far involve road lines. Painting is contracted to a different company, but Gaetz said he is in communication with that office so the timing of road surface work and line painting will make sense.
Road surfacing issues on Salt Spring will likely involve multi-year planning. Emcon has already done some temporary winter patches on potholes with a polymer asphalt fill. More extensive surface attention will start with drainage improvements and mowing/brush clearing this coming summer so that pavement improvements can take place the following year. Major road fixes will need to be budgeted over two to three years.
Gaetz has also received some complaints about gravel road conditions on Salt Spring. He said the contractor tried to get as much grading done as possible before the rains started and will do follow-up after the season ends, because doing that type of work while it’s still wet only makes conditions worse.
Gaetz encourages people to use the toll free number 1-866-353-3136 to report any road hazards that they see, including things like trees down, potholes or roadkill. That number goes to a dispatcher who can connect immediately with road crews.