Winter highway maintenance gains transparency with new directives

ONTARIO— Last week The Ministry of Transportation ( MTO ) released the Winter Highway Maintenance Action Plan following the Auditor General’s review of winter highway maintenance in April of this year which found that, since the privatization of ploughing through the MTO, winter road care has worsened, particularly in the North.

“Ontario has among the safest roads in North America and we at the Ministry of Transportation are committed to keeping Ontarians safe, particularly in the winter weather,” the executive summary of the action plan states. “Over the past four years the ministry has worked to enhance the quality of its snow clearing, adding equipment, strengthening the oversight of its independent contractors and upgrading the way truck climbing and passing lanes and freeway ramps and shoulders are ploughed.”

The plan has two components: immediate actions that will be put in place for the 2015/16 winter season; and two, further improvements for the delivery of winter maintenance services to be implemented in the coming years.

The summary notes that an internal review completed by the ministry in 2013 identified areas where the MTO could enhance its winter maintenance. “We were pleased to note that many of the auditor’s recommended actions had also been identified and were already underway. This included the re-tendering of a maintenance contract for the Kenora area, increasing the usage of the anti-icing liquids (DLA) and adding stand-alone spreaders in both remote rural and busy urban areas. As a result, all actions in the plan for implementation in the 2015/16 winter season will be funded from within the ministry’s current budget allocations.”

The plan includes improving the Ontario 511 website to help drivers make informed decision before heading out on a wintery night by including the time that road conditions were observed (time stamping); adding links from the website to the Road Weather Information System; real-time camera images from across the province; and the launch of a “Track My Plow” program in two contract areas (these areas were not known as of press time Sunday), with a link from Ontario 511.

Just such a tracking program was suggested in the November 26, 2014 editorial in this newspaper. “If a large municipality (referring to Vaughan) with lots of streets and roads can make this valuable information available to its citizens in the interest, at the very least, of public safety so should the Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) feel obliged to give Ontarians access to the whereabouts of snowplows and salt trucks, online, on a region by region or highway by highway basis or both so that anyone in Ontario planning a driving trip on a provincial highway can see for themselves how recently a plow or salt truck has been on, or will be on, the highway where they will be travelling.”

“All of the vehicles under contract to the MTO are already equipped with Global Positioning Systems (GPS) transmitting devices so the staff at the various patrol headquarters can see how the rolling stock is progressing,” the November 26 editorial continues. “It would be a simple thing to make this same information completely transparent and able to be called up in real time either within regions or on a highway by highway basis.”

“This would be a very useful tool and would enable Ontarians to make travel judgments on an enormously more informed basis.”

“In the not-too-distant past, Ontarians had access to a series of toll-free numbers, district by district, which could be called for information about the state of winter highways,” the editorial states. “At one time, one would speak to a knowledgeable person who would advise on the road conditions on particular highways. Later on, this personal service was replaced by a recorded message.”

“But an online, real time map that shows a snowplow’s and sand truck’s progress on a given highway, together with the most recent snowplowing activity would be far more useful than either of these old options.

It would also be an enormous good faith gesture to the citizens of Northern Ontario for whom long stretches of winter driving are often not an option,” the editorial concludes.

The MTO is also promising to provide more public education about winter safe driving and winter highway maintenance and report on its performance after every winter for each of the 20 contract areas.

When it comes to improving winter highway maintenance, the MTO plans to work with its contractors “to ensure they have reliable equipment and trained operators out on the highways from the time the first storm strikes until the end of winter”; increasing the use of anti-icing liquids before winter storms, especially on the heavily travelled southern Ontario freeways; working with its contractors to use the right amount of salt at the right times; add more equipment in key locations, including stand-alone spreaders; take steps to be more aware of changing road and weather conditions allowing contractors to respond more quickly; and provide opportunities for innovation and technology.

At end of winter 2015/16, the Auditor General will be reviewing the effectiveness of these changes and providing the ministry with further observations and recommendations as necessary.

“Privatizing winter road maintenance has put drivers in Ontario at risk all across the province,” states Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Michael Mantha. “Everyone knows that in the winter it’s going to snow, and Ontarians deserve efficient and high quality snow-clearing to ensure our roads are safe. But instead of fixing the problems, the minister is continuing to put the interests of powerful companies ahead of drivers. In fact, earlier this year Ontario’s Auditor-General reported it’s taking longer to clear roads and many of the private contractors are failing to keep up their end of the deal. The Liberals told Ontarians they could expect better, but sadly it’s more of the same.”

“Privatized road clearing has failed,” Mr. Mantha continued. “Unsafe roads put families at risk and it puts the brakes on trade and the economy. Drivers heading into Manitoba can see the moment they cross the border; their publicly cleared roads put public safety first, not private bottom lines. Just think what’s going to happen when Kathleen Wynne sells off Hydro One.”