New Brunswick

Seldom-used warning signs show lack of closure policy on Trans-Canada Highway: fire chief

Emergency responders on both sides of the New Brunswick-Nova Scotia border say there needs to be better co-ordination when weather causes dangerous driving conditions on the Trans-Canada Highway through the Tantramar Marsh area.

Emergency responders on both sides of N.B. and N.S. border say highway closure policy needs to be followed

New Brunswick's Department of Transportation and Infrastructure says two solar-powered signs like this were purchased for $30,000 each after a 12-hour Trans-Canada Highway closure at Sackville nearly five years ago. Many locals say they've never seen them used. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

Emergency responders on both sides of the New Brunswick-Nova Scotia border say there needs to be better co-ordination when weather causes dangerous driving conditions on the Trans-Canada Highway through the Tantramar Marsh area.

Nearly five years ago, the Trans-Canada Highway was closed for about 12 hours because of dangerous driving conditions along the Tantramar Marsh due to winds and low visibility.

Hundreds of vehicles were detoured into the town of Sackville, N.B., where the municipality, working with the fire department and RCMP, set up a warming centre and a canteen to ensure people who were stranded were as comfortable as possible.

Sackville Fire Chief Craig Bowser said that prompted a meeting with emergency responders, the RCMP, representatives from the towns of Sackville and Amherst, N.S. and the departments of transportation from both provinces.

"It was agreed on by the stakeholders that we meet and develop a contingency plan that provided a clear threshold of roles and responsibilities when the weather warranted the closure of the Trans-Canada Highway."

Bowser said a comprehensive plan was created, but it is no longer being followed.

An example is two solar-powered electronic highway signs.

New Brunswick officials bought and installed them for $30,000 each, to allow information to be easily given to anyone driving by.

That was nearly five years ago and Bowser has only heard of them being used twice.

Sackville Fire Chief Craig Bowser said the four flashing dots on the electronic signs cause confusion among motorists. (Submitted by Jamie Burke)

"I myself personally have never seen a message on the sign board. It's always the four flashing dots, but I have been told by my colleagues that they have seen it twice now."

If the rumours are true and the province is displaying messages, Bowser said the town or its fire department have never been informed.

"It would be nice when they are putting that out to let the town of Sackville know so we can communicate through our social media platforms as well."

Since the signs were installed, Bowser said their lack of use only adds to drivers' confusion. He said people have sent messages to the town asking what four blinking dots means.

"It's a point of frustration and confusion … so we've tried to let them know that they're there for education for the travelling public to let them know they could be entering a dangerous corridor."

Closed on one side but not the other

While few if any messages have been posted, Mike Johnson, regional emergency management co-ordinator for Cumberland, N.S., said over the last five years there have been dangerous road conditions.

He said on Nov. 1, 2019, winds were so strong on the marsh that a tractor trailer truck was blown over on the Nova Scotia side of the Trans-Canada Highway. The accident caused the fuel tank to rupture, making conditions on the highway even more dangerous.

Nova Scotia's Department of Transportation made the decision to close the highway, but New Brunswick did not.

"The road conditions were the same on both sides of the border," Johnson said.

Mike Johnson, regional emergency management co-ordinator for Cumberland, N.S., said 'boots on the ground need to be able to make the decision,' when it comes to closing the highway along the Tantramar Marsh. He said the protocols in place are not being followed on both sides of the provincial border. (CBC)

He said a tractor trailer was blown over on the New Brunswick side of the marsh that same day. 

"It gets very difficult to clean up those messes after the fact," said Johnson.

Not only is it dangerous for drivers, but also for the first responders who have to go help people stranded along the highway. 

New Brunswick's Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the highway, would not make anyone available for an interview.

Jason Hoyt, the department's director of communications, said in a written statement, "DTI District crews carry out winter maintenance and the call to close the highway is made by DTI management staff."

But he would not elaborate on how staff decide if and when the highway should be closed.

Hoyt said once the decisions is made to close the highway, "the information is posted on the NB511 social media outlets. Such information is communicated between DTI and the Nova Scotia Department of Transportation and Infrastructure."

Measured approach

Johnson would like to see a measured approach when it comes to closing the highway or even offering the public warnings.

"There's wind measurements we have access to."

Ramp gates were installed at the cost of $90,000. The gates can be used to stop drivers from accessing the Trans-Canada Highway. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

If tractor trailers blow over when wind speeds reach 100 km/h for example, Johnson would like to see some kind of action taken when the wind reaches 95 km/h.

New Brunswick officials won't confirm if the electronic signs have been used to convey information near Sackville, but did say they were deployed to warn of flooding in the Jemseg area in 2018 and 2019.