Your Most Popular BC Winter Maintenance Questions, Answered

Winter driving and highway maintenance in BC got you worried?

Don’t fret – we’re on it.

We take our commitment to provide a safe, reliable transportation network very seriously, and the performance of our maintenance contractor is an essential part of this focus. Sometimes, when winter rears its head on BC highways, we’ll hear from travellers asking questions about our winter maintenance requirements. You may have your thoughts on the how and the why – here’s the official word from us.

Highway maintenance during this storm was not enough. Where were your contractors? I drove from here to there and didn’t see a plow the entire time! 

Highway maintenance was better before privatization in 1988 

Your contractors are skimping on salt/sand! 

What are you doing to make sure maintenance contractors are meeting their contractual obligations? 

I often see plows driving around with their blade up. What good does that do?

Why aren’t the roads “plowed to black” during the winter?


Highway maintenance during this storm was not enough. Where were your contractors? I drove from here to there and didn’t see a plow the entire time!

Our maintenance contracts are intended to provide a safe level of winter maintenance and include provisions for storm preparation and clean-up. They are also required to provide specific levels of resources, like equipment, personnel and road maintenance supplies, and to plan and allocate these resources effectively.We set performance specifications consistent with other jurisdictions across North America, and we hold our contractors responsible for the services they deliver.

It is important to stress that BC highways have different winter maintenance classifications depending on their traffic volumes and location. Busier and more geographically challenging routes (such as the Coquihalla) have a shorter allowable time frame for plowing cycles; while less busy highways and sideroads have a longer allowable time frame.

This means that, unless a traveller was stationary for 1 ½ – 4 hours, they might not see any maintenance vehicles working on the road, when in actual fact, a maintenance vehicle could be right behind them on the road, or just ahead – depending where they are in their patrol. Ministry staff also actively patrol our roads and highways to make sure our maintenance contractors are out in enough force and using all available tools appropriately, including sand, salt and snow removal equipment to keep travellers moving safely.

The current contracts do not limit the hours or the effort the contractors must employ to meet the clear road standards. If necessary, they will be in 24/7 mode – operating around the clock – and hire additional private trucks and equip them with plows and sanders to meet the conditions.

A snowblower clears snow roadside on the Coquihalla shortly after it opened in 1986.
A snowblower clears snow roadside on the Coquihalla shortly after it opened in 1986.

Highway maintenance was better before privatization in 1988

One thing we hear regularly is “highway maintenance in BC was better in the old days (pre-privatization).” We’re the first to admit that a lot of things have changed since the “old days” – some things for the better (mullets anyone?!) One thing that has certainly improved are the tools we use to battle winter weather on BC highways. Here are a few:

  • Maintenance Vehicles
    During the 1960s and 1970s, we had more crews because we also had smaller maintenance vehicles. These were slower one-tonne trucks which could not hold nearly the amount of sand that newer tandem and tri-axle trucks can hold. Modern trucks also plow at greater speeds and allow for more efficient crew sizes and deployment. We also use cool tools, like the tow plow, to get the job done in one go.
  • Road Weather Stations and Intelligent Transportation Systems
    Back in the late 1970’s, a handful of independent weather stations were used to send weather information to our offices. Since that time, our weather monitoring program has grown into a sophisticated network of environmental road weather sensing stations that help us monitor and respond to changing road conditions. We also use this data to transmit important information to motorists through our Variable Speed Limit Systems and Dynamic Message Signs. This helps drivers make informed decisions about when and where they should go.That being said – some things have changed for the worse. Today, we see more frequent and extreme weather events, not to mention more traffic volume on the road. As a part of B.C.’s Climate Adaptation Strategy, we’re working with other key players to understand exactly what climate change might mean to our infrastructure and identifying ways we can adapt in response.

Your contractors are skimping on salt/sand!

Our maintenance contractor crews apply salt, salt brines, anti-icing agents and abrasives (sand or small aggregate) or combinations thereof to address conditions based on current and anticipated weather conditions throughout the day. They watch weather forecasts closely and use their local knowledge of specific areas to determine when, how much and where they apply them. During their patrols, they also monitor and respond to slippery conditions as required.It is not to their benefit in any way to skimp on materials. The liabilities for failing to perform their work to the contractual standards exceed any gain from shorting materials. The contractors are required to provide specific levels of resources and to plan and allocate these resources effectively.

Snow plow on BC highway
Snowplow at work on BC highway

What are you doing to make sure maintenance contractors are meeting their contractual obligations?

Ministry staff regularly audit and monitor contractor performance in addition to communicating with them on a daily basis. We have a comprehensive quality plan to assess the performance of our contractors. It involves monitoring hundreds of records and audits, to determine whether contractors are meeting the maintenance specifications. The maintenance contract includes tools to address “non-conformance”, through escalating intervention measures based on the seriousness of the “non-conformance”. Some of the tools include “non-conformance” reports and notices to comply.

This intensive monitoring occurs at all hours both during storms and between significant weather events. The contractor is required to keep records to demonstrate compliance with the maintenance specifications and to have a quality control and a quality assurance program to demonstrate they’re meeting the contract requirements.

If monitoring shows deficiencies in performance or response, ministry staff will work with the contractor to ensure they quickly improve and deliver quality maintenance and safe highway conditions. Penalties can result from a continuous inability to meet our maintenance specifications. If the contractor regularly fails to address non-conformances , they can lose points in their performance “audit” which may lead to loss of their contractor assessment performance payment, which is up to two per cent of the full value of the contract.At times, the weather and road conditions can change quickly. When this happens, both ministry staff and our maintenance contractors follow up to ensure specified patrol timeframes were met. Senior ministry staff regularly audit contractor performance to ensure contractors are meeting our strict specifications and work with them to swiftly resolve any issues.

I often see plows driving around with their blade up. What good does that do?

At times, a front plow blade may be up in a “v” shape – that choice is determined by the volume of snow they are pushing, what’s on the side of the road (front plows do a lot of damage to fences and structures close to the edge of the road) and the fact that they can put a lot more “down pressure” using the underbody plow (rather than the front plow) when stripping ice off the road. “High blading” may also occur when a truck is in need of repair or the plow blades have worn out. In some instances, a plow blade may be up when the truck is applying abrasives or chemicals, however most trucks these days are set up to release these materials behind the attached plows.

Why aren’t the roads “plowed to black” during the winter?

Before, during and after winter storm events, our maintenance contractors are out in full force doing everything they can to keep BC highways clear and open. If necessary, they will be in 24/7 mode and hire additional private trucks and equip them with plows and sanders to tackle the conditions. It is important to remind travellers that winter on BC mountain passes is a powerful beast, and snow accumulation can happen rapidly, often covering highways quickly after the plows go past. Even with all those resources working to clear the roads, it isn’t realistic to expect the roads to be bare and black during a storm.

Our maintenance contracts require that maintenance contractors get their roads “back to black” – but that expectation varies depending on the type of road and the amount of snowfall. For example: the maximum accumulation allowed on a Class A highway (like the Trans Canada Highway) is four centimetres in one lane, up to eight centimetres in the second lane, and all other lanes up to 12 centimetres before it must be plowed.

It is imperative that drivers understand and realize they are responsible for adjusting their speeds to match the conditions as they travel, if the road condition is anything less than bare and dry. Learn more about our winter maintenance highway classifications and the related maintenance contractor requirements.

See something that concerns you while travelling BC highways?

The fastest way to attend to the problem or raise awareness of an issue is to tell our maintenance contractor directly. Our contractors are required to keep records of public concerns and this helps us during our auditing process to ensure the contractor is responsive to any problems brought to their attention. Here’s a list of our maintenance contractors and the ways you can connect with them to communicate your concerns. Do you have a question about winter maintenance on BC highways, or anything else we do? Let us know in the comments below.

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