Northern highway safety requires vigilance

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Anyone who lives in the country knows how important clear roads are in the winter.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/01/2022 (254 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Anyone who lives in the country knows how important clear roads are in the winter.

Driving in a unexpected blizzard or on an unplowed road is a white-knuckle nightmare. Tragedy can lurk around every icy curve.

The highways that are a lifeline for thousands of Manitobans are the provincial government’s responsibility. For years, the task of operating snowplows and de-icing trucks fell on the shoulders of provincial workers stationed across the province.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES University of Manitoba economics professor Jesse Hajer

In 2019, the Progressive Conservative government began hiring private companies to perform seasonal road work and make sure highways were as safe as possible for winter motorists.

In November 2021, the province announced there would be 340 truck plows, graders and pieces of de-icing equipment deployed to keep Manitoba’s 19,000-kilometre highway network in safe condition.

A recent report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a left-leaning think-tank, says despite that many pieces of machinery, the province’s privatization move has led to a decline in the frequency and quality of snow-clearing in rural Manitoba.

It cites anecdotal reports from northern municipalities that suggest roads have become more dangerous in the past five years, and that government snowplow crews have had to redo snow-removal work private contractors didn’t do correctly.

Road safety is a common theme in winter, but the matter gained greater focus after Thompson MLA Danielle Adams died in a Dec. 9 collision on Highway 6 between Grand Rapids and Thompson.

The CCPA report notes that northern mayors say Highway 6, about 800 kilometres of pavement that connects Winnipeg with Thompson and dozens of communities in between, has often had inadequate snow-clearing. They say motorists sometimes drive on the middle of the highway — at risk of colliding with oncoming traffic — to avoid snowdrifts that narrow the drivable portion of the road.

While there has been no evidence that road conditions were to blame for Ms. Adams’ death, the death of a public figure has brought forward ongoing concerns about the province’s highways, especially those in remote areas of northern Manitoba.

Critics have found plenty of reasons to complain about the government’s cost-cutting when observing Manitoba’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the province’s austerity agenda also stretches to every corner of the province, through its highways.

There can be many potential benefits to hiring private contractors to maintain Manitoba’s roads. Offering the work to the lowest bidder can keep costs down, and if private companies maintain the same standard of work as provincially funded crews for less money, the savings can go to other provincial priorities.

If, however, the cost-cutting leads to poorer highway conditions, especially in remote areas where help for stranded or injured motorists can often be many kilometres away, the benefits can be as hard to find as oncoming traffic in a whiteout.

“This is always an issue when it comes to investments in public services that have such a clear tie to public safety,” said University of Manitoba economics professor Jesse Hajer, the CCPA report’s co-author. “These really are decisions that have life and death consequences.”

For the province to meet its commitment to the safety of all Manitobans travelling in remote areas, and for rural motorists to be confident their journeys will end safely, the government must declare publicly what it demands from private highway maintenance crews and keep a constant close watch on the quality of their snow-removal efforts.

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