Two years after petitioning the provincial government to hold the local highway maintenance contractor to a higher standard, Merritt Mayor Neil Menard is once again airing grievances over perceived deficiencies with the state of highways in the Nicola Valley.

Merritt Mayor Neil Menard

But the transportation manager for the Thompson-Nicola District says VSA Maintenance is meeting — and in some cases exceeding — the expectations of the Ministry of Transportation as far as maintaining certain standards on the highways during winter conditions.

Menard emphasized that his complaints weren’t directed at the workers and plow truck operators.

“We have no intentions of throwing any of the workers under the bus because they are doing their job and doing it very well,” said Menard. “It’s getting the trucks out there, getting the appropriate number of trucks out there to get plowing. It’s getting the material onto the highway that will alleviate some of the ice.”

The mayor’s comments come after two fatal crashes were recorded in a matter of weeks on the Coquihalla Highway. In one crash on Feb. 3, an SUV was stopped on the side of the highway when it was struck from behind by a semi truck, killing a woman who was seated in the rear of the vehicle.

Then, on Feb. 11, another man was killed after being struck by a vehicle as he exited his car to render assistance to other drivers involved in a crash. In the latter crash, RCMP cited road conditions and speed as factors in the accident.

“Number one, safety is our main concern for the travelling public,” said Menard. “I don’t think VSA is living up to their contract and doing what they are supposed to do before the storm, because they usually know when one is coming, and what they need to do to prepare the highways.”

Ministry closely monitors VSA performance

There are a number of metrics that the Ministry of Transportation uses to measure the performance of companies contracted to maintain the highways in a given region, said Trent Folk, district transportation manager for the Thompson-Nicola District. In order to make sure contractors like VSA Highway Maintenance is meeting the specifications outlined in their contract, the ministry deploys operations staff to monitor the performance of the contractor while they are out on the roads.

All maintenance contractors are required by the ministry to have outlined plans for quality management, he explained.

“In addition to the field auditing and the stuff on the road, there is also office components, where we’re going through taking a look at how they are responded to storms, comparing it to their quality management system,” said Folk.

As a final check, the ministry brings in third party staff from outside the local region to evaluate the audit process and certify that the contractor is meeting or exceeding the specifications in their multi-year contract. The same process occurs in regions across the province, every summer and winter season on an annual basis, said Folk.

“The performance of VSA and what they are doing out there is really meeting, and in a lot of cases, exceeding the specifications that are in that contract and what we expect of them,” said Folk. “Through our monitoring program and our auditing program, that’s what we’ve found and we’ve been quite happy with the performance of VSA compared to that specification.”

He also pointed to pro-active measures developed by VSA specifically for the Nicola region, such as the ‘snowshed protocol,’ in which multiple agencies are brought together in advance of a winter storm on Highway 5. The group includes tow truck drivers, commercial vehicle safety enforcement (CVSE) officers and an array of maintenance staff who are ready to respond to inclement weather in an attempt to minimize the chance of a closure on the route.

Still, Menard said he feels that more could be done to protect travellers on the mountain passes.

“I’m a firm believer in going through all the proper channels to accomplish something and do it with as much respect as possible,” said Menard. “They haven’t listened to us. So now we’re in the process of trying to arrange a meeting with the minister.”

While the state of the highways are the main concern for Menard, he said there are other avoidable factors contributing to the frequent closures on the Coquihalla Highway, such as ill-prepared drivers of commercial trucks spinning out in winter conditions.

“There are a lot of good, professional truckers on the road but there are a lot of them who don’t have a clue. They get in those rigs, they put ‘em in gear, and away they go. They don’t know how to put chains on, they don’t know how to judge the highway when the storm is coming,” he said, adding that he’d like to see more powers awarded to CVSE officers to penalize drivers who risk spinning out and shutting down the highway.

In 2016, Menard worked with a group of local stakeholders to put together a petition with more than 2,500 signatures, calling on the Ministry of Transport to enforce existing standards for area-highways such as the Coquihalla, Highway 5A, and 97C. 

The petition led to a meeting between the Menard, Folk and representatives from VSA Highway Maintenance.

Following that meeting, then-Minister of Transportation Todd Stone reaffirmed his support for the contractor, stating that VSA was “meeting the standards that are detailed in their contract.” Stone made the comment while announcing an increase of $35 million to the province’s road maintenance budget.

“We said it two years that money isn’t going to fix the problem. What’s going to fix the problem is doing what they are supposed to do. We don’t think they are doing that,” said Menard.