The FaceBook group Taking Back East Kootenay Highways was formed in 2014 as more and more people became concerned about what they perceived was less than quality maintenance of winter roads in the area.
The FaceBook page, with links to an online petition, has grown since then as people share their concerns and report conditions.
Now the group is planning a protest at Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett’s office in Cranbrook on Wednesday.
The protest will begin at 11 a.m. Bennett’s office at 100 Cranbrook St. N. A statement from the group says, “We will let our MLA and highway Contractor (Mainroad) know that we are very unhappy with Bill Bennett’s delay in response to our concerns regarding highway maintenance and the growing complaints as well as lack of highway maintenance we are receiving this winter.
“We would like to stress that this protest is not directed at employees of Mainroad but rather MLA Bill Bennett,Mainroad management and the Minister of Transportation. This is a peaceful protest and we remind those who are attending to be respectful during this event.”
However, it is likely to be a quiet protest as neither Bill Bennett nor anyone from Mainroad will be there.
Niki Taylor, Mainroad Communications, put out the following statement: “Mainroad East Kootenay Contracting is aware of the protest but has no plans to attend. Instead, we will be continuing to ensure the Provincial highways are kept safe for travel, as we have done for the past fourteen years.”
Bill Bennett will not be in town on Wednesday. He spoke to the Bulletin/Townsman while en route to Prince George on Monday. Bennett says his office will be closed during the protest.
“I told my staff to leave the office and let the protest happen,” he said.
“I’m not going to expose my staff to profanity and threats, which they have received from these people, both over the phone and coming into the office. My staff will vacate the premises.”
Bennett says that up to a point this winter, he found that his office had received fewer complaints than other years.
“I have 14 other winters with Mainroad to compare it to and there were fewer complaints. Up until I said publicly that I hadn’t received as many complaints — since then, we are receiving more complaints.”
Bennett says that he has in the past complained publicly about Mainroad, something he’s sure the contractor wasn’t that happy about, and if there is an incident where the contractor is at fault, he will fight for his constituents. And he is looking for answers, he says.
“There have been some really bad accidents this year, even deaths. I’ve asked the Ministry of Transport for a complete detailed report, including RCMP reports.
“I understand that when there has been an accident, it’s human nature to want to affix blame. If roads and the contractor are to blame, and I accept that there are circumstances where it’s possible the contractor made a mistake, then I want to know about it. But it’s also likely that drivers were not driving consistent with road conditions. That’s what many of the RCMP reports are saying. You can’t say every bad accident is caused by Mainroad.”
As for the Taking Back East Kootenay Highways groups specifically, Bennett says that there is some considerable union foundation to the group.
“There are some who are ideologically opposed to private sector contractors doing public sector work.
“The B.C. government decided decades ago that there had to be an element of competition in order to keep costs down. There is no chance any government, including the NDP, is going to go back to services provided by the MoT. The taxpayer simply can’t afford it.”
Bennett says he has all kinds of time for those who are concerned with their families’ safety.
“But I need to know details. I need what day it was, where you were, what time of day. I will work with the Ministry to find out what was going on. There is usually a pretty rational explanation.
“In the meantime, I will continue to represent my constituents’ interests.
“The last thing I will say is that the contract is up for renewal and this time next year there will be a new contract, new specifications, and possible, though not necessarily, a new contractor.”