Highway closure frustrates residents

Matt Gardner
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The closure of Highway 302 west to traffic has upset some residents of the RM of Prince Albert.

As described by area resident Tamara Whitford, the biggest point of contention has been the choice and maintenance of a 14-kilometre detour route.

“They have a detour road and it’s not got a name because it was an access road for someone to get to their fields -- so it’s dirt,” Whitford said.

“There’s no gravel. It’s not meant for heavy traffic, it’s not meant for heavy vehicles, for gravel trucks, and that’s what they’ve given us as a detour road.”

She also criticized the upkeep of the detour route.

“It’s not being maintained … The grader went by yesterday (and) it barely sheared off the tops of the washboard.”

For Whitford and her neighbours, the quality of the road and the inconvenience of the detour are inextricably linked to perceived safety concerns.

“It’s not a safe detour route,” Whitford said. “I have a medical condition that if I get an infection I have to go to the doctor right away, and even then, I may end up in ICU from the infection. That’s how fast this happens.

“I have neighbours that have medical conditions. I have older neighbours. Just to make it to the appointments, just to make it to town for work, is causing grief for this detour route that they’ve given us and blocked off the others.”

One of the biggest safety concerns Whitford pointed to was the presence of school buses on a detour road she indicated was not up to the task.

“I volunteer at my son’s school, West Central School,” she said. “Even the teachers are like, ‘Why is that blockade there?’ And they say they drove past it. You shouldn’t have to drive past anything. How are kids supposed to be taught?”

She added, “This detour route that they have marked out that’s terrible with soft spots -- how is a bus supposed to safely get our kids to school and to home?”

Whitford said that when her husband phoned the reeve, he was told that since residents of Lily Plain along the blocked-off section of highway do not pay taxes to the RM of Prince Albert, they would not be allowed to use the road.

Reeve Norma Sheldon, however, expressed puzzlement at such a notion.

“Highway 302 is inaccessible because it’s a road failure,” Sheldon said. “It has nothing to do with paying taxes to the RM of P.A., and the meridian has been the dividing line between the RM of Duck Lake and the RM of P.A. for as many years.

“There is no consequence to people for not paying taxes or maintenance on that road from the RM of Duck Lake. I don’t know where that comes from.”

Moreover, she added, the responsibility for highways rests with the Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure, not the RM.

A representative of the Ministry confirmed Sheldon’s account that Highway 302 was closed due to a road failure.

“What happened there was a culvert washed out,” Ministry spokesperson Joel Cherry said. “So essentially what that means is the water exceeded the capacity of the culvert, started flowing around it, eroded away the earth underneath it and the road collapsed.

It’s not a safe detour route. Tamara Whitford

“That happened kind of gradually at first. Some of it started going on the shoulder. Eventually one of the lanes was completely collapsed, so the road’s been closed.”

While the decision to close Highway 302 was the Ministry’s alone, the choice of a detour route represented a collective decision with the RM.

“We consult with the RM before we set up a detour and come up with one that’s acceptable both to us and them,” Cherry said.

“They have to be to a certain standard that is acceptable for the type of traffic it’s going to have to accommodate, and if there are any damages to the road, we have agreements with them that’ll determine whether we compensate them for any damages.”

He stressed the importance of drivers staying on the posted detour route, since the chosen route must be built to a certain standard suitable to traffic.

While acknowledging that as an access road, the current detour route was intended for smaller vehicles, Cherry noted that “in some cases, it’s the best that we can do -- and like I said, it’s something that the RM and the Ministry would have agreed on is the most appropriate for the area.”

With the Ministry operating graders on the detour road, he pointed to the role of recent rainfall in complicating maintenance efforts.

“Like any other gravel road, it’s more subject to weather conditions than obviously a paved road would be, but we are maintaining the road,” Cherry said. “We have people in the area and we’re going to try to make sure it’s as drivable as possible.”

Fortunately for residents of the RM, the highway closure is not expected to last too much longer.

Cherry confirmed that Ministry plans to repair the damage and re-open Highway 302 to traffic are well underway.

“We’ve put out a tender and we've awarded the job to a contractor, and we’re expecting them to be on site fairly soon,” Cherry said.

“The targeted completion date to have the culvert replacement and road repair done there is later in June -- about June 24 -- and that’s of course subject to weather and contractor scheduling and progress.”

“We’re doing all that we can to get the road open, obviously … We know that people do use this road and it’s an important roadway for a lot of people,” he added. “So we’re hoping to get the work done there as soon as possible.”

Clarification: This story should have noted that the blockade in contention is on the west central road off of Highway 11, not on Highway 302.

Organizations: West Central School, Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure

Geographic location: ICU

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