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Privatization and potholes: Our highways are hurting, with no savings to be seen

Those of us who travel the backroads remember when things were better
Privatized rural road maintenance in B.C. may have some rural road travellers thinking about the old days when the province took care of things.

One thing I love to do as I beat up my old truck on those Blackwater potholes is think about how the private highway maintenance company hired to maintain it, Yellowhead Road and Bridge, can’t afford to grade it.

Funny, because they saved a fortune last winter not plowing snow. Why not put those savings into a little extra road maintenance?

Different categories of expenses, I’m told.  But in the big picture, the Blackwater is a critical stretch of road should Highway 97 South ever have to be closed.

We sure don’t treat it that way.  Even in a light snow year like last year, Yellowhead Road and Bridge would usually only ever plow to Baldy Hughes, leaving the 20-kilometre stretch to the point where Emcon Road Services’ maintenance contract begins as a rutted, dangerous, potholed mess of unplowed snow for a couple of weeks at a time. If the Ministry of Highways says it’s a different classification of highway, I wonder how Emcon keeps their end in better shape?

I guess you can’t really blame YRB. It’s a system we created. We wrote the contract, and we enforce the contract.  We wrote the clause that says they can use the tax dollars we give them to pay out their shareholders should there be no snow to plow, instead of investing the savings back into things like pothole repair and grading.

It wasn’t always like that.

I’m old enough to remember when we had the publicly owned Department of Highways maintaining the rural roads and the provincial highway network.

This changed in 1988, when we sold off our trucks and graders for pennies on the dollar to private maintenance companies, who basically run private monopolies.

It was part of a national trend that some provinces, like Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Newfoundland have for the most part avoided, although it’s a constant struggle.

The argument was the provincial highways maintenance operations were inefficient and wasteful. We heard the same thing when we privatized BC Building Corporation. But the privatized monopolies we end up with don’t necessarily deliver better services let alone save us any money.

When, in 1994 we assessed what the impact of privatized road maintenance was in B.C., we discovered it was costing us $19 million more per year.  Worse road maintenance has been reported in Ontario and likely the same in Alberta, although the Alberta government has obscured the data necessary for any investigation and has denied their Auditor General the mandate to investigate it.

But those of us who travel the backroads and remember the old days know.

No matter how wasteful the old government Department of Highways may have been, I have a feeling the laziness was in us as a collective entity.

It took too much public energy to fight off the neoliberal gospel of privatization. It was too much work to ensure that public money would be used for the public good and not private gain. It took too much mental effort to accept government run services might not be perfect, but better than the alternative of privatized monopoly profiteering.

Every year our taxes get higher and higher and services get worse and worse. If the past 40 years of privatization haven’t fixed things, I’m starting to wonder if maybe that’s part of the problem.

James Steidle is a Prince George writer.