By Greg Murphy
BELLEVILLE – Following a slew of accidents on Highway 401 recently, local politicians have expressed concern about cutbacks in the provincial Ministry of Transportation’s highway-maintenance and snow-removal contracts.
On Jan. 29, a massive pileup on the 401 near Napanee turned a normal winter commute into a nightmare, severely damaging nearly 100 vehicles. A second enormous pileup happened on the 401 at Wallbridge-Loyalist Road on Feb. 5.
Luckily, only a few injuries were reported for both accidents.
Todd Smith , the Progressive Conservative MPP for Prince Edward-Hastings, was on the 401 the day of the second pileup and narrowly escaped, turning off the highway onto Wallbridge-Loyalist Road minutes before the crash.
“The driving conditions have been atrocious, and personally I think it has to do with our (provincial) government mismanaging finances,” Smith said.
The Liberal government has focused its spending elsewhere, forcing the Ministry of Transportation to make cutbacks in its spending, he said, adding that highway maintenance has been largely overlooked this winter as a result.
Rob Milligan , the Progressive Conservative MPP for Northumberland-Quinte West, agreed that cutbacks have made highway maintenance more difficult.
In May 2013, Carillion Canada Inc.  was the successful bidder for the MTO’s highway-maintenance and snow-removal contract for the region of Kingston West, a stretch of the 401 running from west of Kingston to Port Hope.
Cruickshank Construction was the previous contract holder. In its contract, it was allowed 17 plows to maintain that area of the 401 during snowfalls, Milligan said. Carillion is allowed nine plows.
Also, two of Northumberland County’s three salt yards have been closed, forcing Carillion to work from one central yard in Grafton.
“Basically (the ministry of transportation is) making cuts to the service provider (Carillion),” said Milligan.
These cutbacks have made highway maintenance on the 401 “very poor” this winter, said Cobourg Mayor Gil Brocanier, adding that eliminating the salt yards has been a major problem for Northumberland County.
“You cannot run a full cycle of salting from one location,” Brocanier said.
Milligan said that with the two salt yards closed, plows have to backtrack to collect more salt once they finish a route. This makes the wait between plows much longer, he said.
On Feb. 3, a meeting arranged by Milligan took place among MTO and Carillion officials and mayors from Northumberland County to discuss the contract.
One concern that the municipal leaders shared at the meeting was that they think the MTO should have consulted them about the contract before it was signed, Milligan said.
Closer to Trenton and Belleville, eliminating salt yards hasn’t been an issue, said Quinte West Mayor John Williams, who attended the Feb. 3 meeting. A new yard was recently built on Glen Miller Road, which, along with another yard in Belleville, gives Carillion two salt yards to work with in the area.
“I guess they could keep on top of it a bit better, but here there is not much concern,” said Williams, adding that drivers have the responsibility to be more diligent when driving in severe weather conditions. “There’s no excuse for someone to drive between 110 and 120 kilometres an hour on the 401 when visibility is poor because of snow.”
Napanee Mayor Gordon Schermerhorn also said the chief responsibility for travel safety rests with drivers.
“I think there is a problem with plows not doing a quick enough job, but we also have to slow our speed down and be much more careful,” Schermerhorn said.
Belleville Mayor Neil Ellis was at a conference out of town this week and unavailable for comment, his office said.
Numerous telephone messages and emails left by QNet News for a Carillion spokesperson were not returned.
Asked to respond to the concerns raised by the local politicians, MTO spokesperson Brandy Duhaime told QNet News in an email: “Innovative technology means meeting the same high standard and achieving safety with newer, more efficient vehicles. Contractors are able to maintain the highways to meet contract requirements with different types and numbers of trucks than in the past.
“The route times included in these contracts meet the ministry’s requirements for clearing snow before average accumulations are exceeded. The contractors have sufficient equipment to clear all travelled lanes within the designated route times. The ministry requirements are consistent with other jurisdictions with similar weather patterns.”
When asked about the MTO not consulting with municipal leaders, Duhaime responded (also via email): “For our maintenance contracts, we typically do not undertake public information sessions or consultations in the same way we do for some of our more complex construction projects.
“Ministry staff is available to meet and discuss contract requirements with MPPs and local officials. We’ve responded positively to these kinds of requests in the past and will continue to do so.”