Andrew Hardy, president of CUPE local 1190, believes the recent treacherous conditions on New Brunswick highways are the result of government cuts to the Department of Transportation that started back in 2011.
Two storms over the holidays, followed by extremely cold temperatures, have led to the build-up of what is called "anchor ice" on highways across the province.
The icy conditions have led to many accidents and prompted complaints from across New Brunswick.
Roads are in terrible shape. Travelled from both NS and Maine over the Christmas Break. Roads were bare. Reached NB and felt like an Ice Road Trucker.— @kvalanne
If the snowplows had been out earlier and more often, the highways would not have formed a layer of ice that was essentially salt-resistant below certain temperatures, Hardy said.
And snowplow operators aren't to blame, he said. Hardy pointed to cuts in the past six years that he said have resulted in 55 fewer snow-clearing machines and 70 fewer plow operators.
'They cut the alternate operators'
Hardy said the biggest impact of the cuts has been the elimination of spare or alternate snowplow drivers who can take over when the regular crews have reached their limit of 16 hours.
"If we had the spare operators we could be out there 24-7… we could have a couple [drivers] going up and down the road to keep up with the storm until those other men and women are rested and come back in at four o'clock in the morning."
Hardy said the reality is that plows are often taken off the highways at 11 p.m. and aren't back on the highways until 4 a.m.
'We simply don't have the resources in place right at this time to do everything that the CUPE president is suggesting.' - Transportation Minister Bill Fraser
"There's a lot of accumulation that happens between 11 p.m. and four in the morning and if you've got traffic going over that it packs it and it turns into ice. You're seeing the conditions today."
Hardy also believes snowplow drivers should be called in to start clearing highways sooner.
"We should be out there quicker — before the storm is full force."
Delay in clearing the highways contributes to the problem of ice, which is hard to get at below certain temperatures.
Minister blames past government
Hardy said he met with the director of operations for the Department of Transportation on Nov. 21 and asked that alternate snowplow operators be rehired in all areas of the province.
Transportation Minister Bill Fraser said Wednesday that the department is still trying to rebuild after cuts by the previous government.
"We simply don't have the resources in place right at this time to do everything that the CUPE president is suggesting," Fraser said.
'The cuts in some of the districts was going to be so drastic we said, 'No, don't do that, don't go down to that because you're going to have problems and you're seeing it now.'' - Andrew Hardy, CUPE
The minister said new "staffing level targets" have been set and the department is recruiting.
"Recruitment has been a challenge due to the cuts that were made by the previous government.
"Potential employees — some of them are reluctant to sign on to a job where they know cuts have been made in previous years."
Fraser said that since the Liberals took office, the winter maintenance budget has been increased by 15 per cent, and in the past two years 45 new snowplows have been purchased.
Less salt on highways?
Hardy said his snowplow operators are also concerned by efforts by the Transportation Department to reduce the amount of salt that is applied to highways in an effort to make it consistent across the province.
"The cuts in some of the districts was going to be so drastic we said, 'No, don't do that, don't go down to that because you're going to have problems and you're seeing it now.'"
Hardy pointed to the Saint John district as an example, saying officials wanted to cut the blast rate for plows, which is the amount of salt released on icy corners, steep hills and intersections, by half.
Fraser agreed that the blast rate has been "recalibrated," so it is consistent across the province, but he also insisted there have been no cuts to the volume of salt or sand being applied to roads.
He said drivers have "full authority" to use as much salt or sand as they see fit, although Hardy said that would come as news to plow operators.
"That's not fact — they're told what to put on," Hardy said. "Their trucks are calibrated. If they do have leeway they don't know that."
Beet juice being investigated
Fraser said he has asked department staff to investigate the use of beet juice as an additive to make road salt more effective.
"That's something that we're going to consider," he said.
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Brun-Way Highway Operations Inc., the company that manages and maintains the highway from Longs Creek to the Quebec border and Route 95 from Woodstock to the U.S. border tried adding beet juice to its road salt a few years ago.
In an email, spokesperson Felicia Murphy said the beet juice was not intended to replace salt but rather to "help the salt's effectiveness in lower temperatures.
Murphy said it did not have the desired result.
"We used it with lower temperatures, and yes it worked, but it only worked about 30 minutes quicker than a salt brine mixture we have used as well to pre-wet salt applications," Murphy wrote.
She said Brun-Way has just begun another trial using a product called Pro-Melt Mag 30, but there are no results on its effectiveness yet.