Potholes. They turn a simple drive along a rural road into a dangerous slalom course as drivers manoeuvre, swerving between crumbling asphalt shoulders and wheel-catching mini-sinkholes. In the Cowichan Valley our wintery weather doesn’t last as long as that of other Canadian regions – spring is in February here, not April – but the cycle of frequent freezing and thawing causes plenty of damage all the same. “Potholes are an indication of a larger problem,” said David Conway, director of engineering and operations for North Cowichan, which maintains more than 270 km of roads.
Of course, he’s talking about road base being the underlying problem. I was thinking the larger problem is voter inequality and paving politics. And the stats seem to confirm this, reports Rob Shaw in a recent article in The Province showing that BC Liberal cabinet ministers’ ridings receive a higher percentage of road improvements.
Could potholes be an election issue?
After last month, I would consider voting for a party that has pothole removal on its platform. That’s when my car hit a deep well in the asphalt, flattening my tire and forcing me to pull over instantly onto the inadequate shoulder. After having the car towed and getting the bad news that the tire was irreparably damaged, I got home and phoned North Cowichan. Turns out Tzouhalem Road, where I got the flat, is maintained by the province, or rather the private contractor. Mainroad’s South Island Contracting is part of the Mainroad Group, an employee-owned company formed in 1988 when BC privatized road maintenance. On the south Island, they handle 3,615 lane kilometres. When I phoned Mainroad, the woman on the other end said brightly, “Oh yes, someone complained about that one this morning.” That’s Canada Post-style customer service.
Certainly local officials are frustrated. “We lobby the province continuously,” said Conway, adding that local politicians met with Ministry of Transport delegates at the recent Union of BC Municipalities conference. Conway’s department fields the complaint calls like mine for places like Crofton Road that are in the municipality but maintained by the province, in that case because it leads to a ferry terminal.
Inspired public relations sometimes works. Longtime Port McNeill mayor, Gerry Furney, who retired in 2014, famously organized a pothole golf tournament to point out that the provincial government needed to extend the Island highway to serve the northern communities, upgrading the pitted gravel roads voters thought were inadequate. The highway went through.
Potholes have been on some political platforms outside BC, as well. Funeral director Michael Vogiatzakis ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Winnipeg, and while he didn’t get enough signatures to be on the ballot, he did offer a solution to the subject people find very frustrating: potholes. He offered to hire an inventor to create a new pothole fix.
Locating and identifying potholes isn’t the problem; there are dozens of iPhone apps to help with that. It’s getting them fixed that is the problem. Granted, it’s challenging keeping up with heaving asphalt that changes daily.
But our political tactic of unfair road repair could backfire. Instead of encouraging residents to vote for the party in power, leaving too many potholes can have the opposite effect, creating a rebel faction that vows never to support such inequality. Maybe that’s why elections are not usually held in the winter or early spring; then it’s apparent that we get inadequate road maintenance back for our taxes.
When is the BC government going to realize that promoting tourism and economic development means fixing the roads, too? Cyclists and motorists could be meandering through the Valley in huge numbers if there were decent road shoulders and pavement. We have the new motorsport facility and don’t need a hair-raising car rally option on local roads mined with potholes.
It’s time for the People’s Pothole Protest. Get out your placard.