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B.C. government blames traffic congestion, not lack of plows, for snowfall chaos

B.C. commuters who shared their snowfall experiences described bridges that became parking lots and said the experience was a nightmare.

Dozens of vehicles were stranded on the northbound lanes of the Alex Fraser Bridge for several hours due to accumulating snow on Nov. 29. Crews worked to plow and salt the bridge deck.
Dozens of vehicles were stranded on the northbound lanes of the Alex Fraser Bridge for several hours due to accumulating snow on Nov. 29. Crews worked to plow and salt the bridge deck. Photo by Shane MacKichan

The B.C. Ministry of Transportation blamed traffic congestion for a lack of snow-clearing that resulted in chaos and gridlock Tuesday on the Alex Fraser and Port Mann bridges.

Some motorists were stranded for hours on the Alex Fraser Bridge, which had to be closed because of safety concerns, and others had extreme difficulty navigating the Port Mann Bridge.

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Commuters who shared their experiences described bridges that became parking lots and said the experience was a nightmare.

“What should have been a 20-minute ride turned into a 10½ hour commute” said Jill Fiddler on her effort to make her way from Annacis Island to Surrey.

The two bridges are key arterials in the Lower Mainland, carrying hundreds of thousands of motorists across the Fraser River daily. The bridges are categorized as Class A routes by the province and meant to be the first priority during a winter storm.

In a news conference Wednesday to explain the province’s response to the snow dump, senior Transportation Ministry official Janelle Staite said all of its contractors’ 30 plows were “actively deployed” in the Lower Mainland on Tuesday.

But she said that because there was a lot of congestion, it was challenging for contractors to plow the snow, even despite using provincial vehicles with flashing lights to help plows get through traffic.

Staite noted the traffic congestion started much earlier in the day, at 1 to 2 p.m., as people started leaving for home early. She also noted the snowfall was significant for the Lower Mainland, 20 to 30 centimetres, with snow falling at a rate of as much as six centimetres an hour.

“Our contractors were out there in full force,” said Staite, the regional deputy director of highway services. “I think the congestion was really the big issue.”

She said that because equipment, called collars, operate during snowstorms to keep accumulations clear on cables on the Alex Fraser and Port Mann bridges, the HOV lanes must be closed. That can add further to congestion.

She said that the province will be having a debriefing with the contractor to determine if there is anything they can do differently, perhaps, in how snowplows are deployed, before another forecast snowfall on Friday.

Staite said the province isn’t considering making snow tires mandatory in urban Metro.

She encouraged those who don’t have a vehicle able to travel safely in winter conditions to look for alternative options such as transit or a taxi or Uber service.

“Frankly, stay home if you don’t need to be out on the roads,” said Staite.

There were motor vehicle accidents related to the snowfall, but no fatalities reported.

In early November, the Transportation Ministry issued a news release saying that winter preparations were underway on the Alex Fraser and Port Mann bridges:  “On Lower Mainland highways, maintenance contractors will proactively apply anti-icing brine when freezing temperatures are forecast, and plows will be mobilized to quickly deal with any accumulation of snow.”

The contractor that has responsibility for snow-plowing, including on the bridges, Mainroad Lower Mainland Contracting LP, didn’t respond to questions from Postmedia News on their response to the snowfall Tuesday.

South Surrey B.C. Liberal MLA Elenore Sturko called the lack of preparation and snow-clearing to keep the Alex Fraser Bridge clear for traffic disappointing. She noted that the snow was forecast, and it’s the provincial government’s responsibility to ensure that roads are safe for motorists during snowfalls such as the one that happened Tuesday, particularly on key Lower Mainland bridges.

“You would have thought there would have been more action to ensure the safety on the Port Mann and Alex Fraser. There were people last night … stuck for like six hours on the Alex Fraser, and collisions,” she observed.

Sturko noted there is probably an issue with some motorists who don’t have winter tires but said that also could be because people simply don’t have the money, especially with rising inflation.

And while it’s easy to say take the bus or stay home then, that’s not always an option for people, she said.

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