Crumbling rural roads threaten economy

The tab to fix rural roads in the North Peace is quickly nearing $1 billion, but the region is having little luck securing an increase in provincial funding.

Jackie Kjos, who helms the rural roads task force for the Peace River Regional District, gave the board an update Thursday in which she shared few successes and listed the many challenges that threaten to cut off communities and shut down industry.

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“Our roads are way worse in 2020 than they were in 2018,” Kjos said.

The state of the roads have caused recent havoc for business, according to Kjos.

Canfor’s sawmill in Fort St. John came within three days of shutting down because of a rural road slide in the Graham and Upper Halfway area.

In Upper Cache, a large canola operation couldn’t ship out a time-sensitive load due to road bans, and a buffalo rancher spun out in an accident that killed half a dozen calves at $2,000 a head.

Road bans this year have lasted 104 days — the fourth longest stretch in 40 years, Kjos said.

“There’s real economic impacts that are hitting not just people in the rural area, but the communities that are supported,” Kjos said.

The good news is that the region’s $20 million budget for rural roads hasn’t been touched while others in the province have seen annual cuts of up to 20%.

The bad news is there are up to 400 kilometres of rural roads that need to be brought up to standard — at a cost of about $1 million per kilometre.

And that’s not including the cost to repair any slides. 

The cost to fix Farrell Creek hill alone is $100 million, while there are seven slides threatening the Upper Halfway road, Kjos said.

“Any one that can go at any time,” Kjos said. “There’s 900 people, 6,000 loads of Canfor’s wood back there. It is catastrophic what would happen if we lose one of those roads that are the only access like that.”

Key corridors like Beryl Prairie, Aitken Creek, and Golata Creek “have fallen apart,” Kjos said. 

Three-quarters of permitted extraordinary loads hauled in B.C. are in the northeast. And road conditions are expected to get worse as the province ramps up plans to reclaim dormant and orphan wells, up to 625 per year.

On top of it all, there has been a revolving door of district managers at the Ministry of Transportation — the Peace region is now on its fourth manager in three years. And the task force only gets a short lobbying window of five minutes when meeting with ministers and their deputies.

“We’ve been playing pretty nice,” Kjos said. “We might need to apply a little more pressure.”

The task force relaunched in 2017 after it was first established in 1997 to lobby for more rural roads funding. In 1998, the region got $11 million; in 1999, $6.5 million; and later $103 million. But times have changed, and getting any significant new dollars has been a hard sell, Kjos said.

“The economics were different at that time,” Kjos said. “We were pulling in between $1.6 to $1.8 billion a year in oil and gas, so it was quite easy to build a business case — very difficult in this environment to build a business case, even before COVID-19 came along.”

Tumbler Ridge Mayor Keith Bertrand suggested increasing enforcement to keep industry accountable for damaging the roads by overloading their trucks.

“I can tell you from personal experience, not all loads are 100%, and a lot of the deterioration of those roads is because of overweight loads,” Bertrand said.

Kjos said she was reluctant to step in between the ministry and its relationships with contractors and CVSE.

"It's a bit of a double-edged sword,” Kjos said. “Our goals are no different than the ministry of transportation’s, in that we want a healthy industry but we want to protect the roads, so the person who lives on the road and drives a minivan can get to town.”

Kjos presented a 10-minute video on the state of local roads at the meeting as part of her lobbying efforts. In it, the region’s clay soils are compared to peanut butter when thawing or wet.

Bertrand suggested Kjos include pictures of a fracking convoy.

“Meeting it on the road, it’s quite intimidating, especially on a rural road,” he said. “That might be a challenging task, to get a capture of a convoy, but it’s a pretty impressive sight and I’m sure Victoria has no idea.”

Director Tony Zabinsky, a councillor from Fort St. John, noted concerns about the region’s dwindling aggregate supply, largely being taken up by BC Hydro for the Site C dam.

“We’re finding that small gravel pits are already being used to their full capacity,” Zabinsky said.

“It’s going to affect the rural roads and building these things ... If we got to bring in aggregate from another region the trucking costs are going to be astronomical.”

Kjos said that is part of her workplan. Local gravel supply is critical for the long-term. 

“We’re questioning where gravel is being allocated this year, in particular where we got some roads that you’re bottoming out with a four-wheel drive and it hasn’t made the list. There’s a few of those we’re concerned about,” she said.

Kjos did note that the task force has seen some success in getting more pullouts built, and that a community meeting with Director Karen Goodings helped to bring improvements to the Milligan-Peejay road, which was in “terrible shape’ in early 2019. A planned $100,000 spend for pothole repair turned into $4 million of pavement overlay, she noted.

“That was a gain of $3.9 million, which we were pretty happy on achieving,” Kjos said.

Goodings suggested a meeting with the premier would go a long way to highlight the region's problems.

The board must get the province "to understand how important the roads are to economy of our area," Goodings said, "and to make sure to get that message out that we’re in fact prepared to boost the economy if the province would be prepared to help us out with some funding."

— with files from Matt Preprost and Tom Summer

Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at tsummer@ahnfsj.ca

© Copyright Alaska Highway News

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