Janitors of the road
Darren Ell describes his army of truck drivers and road maintenance crews who work on Lougheed Highway as “unseen janitors,” who keep the road open in fair weather and foul, who cart away dead pets and deer, slow-moving possums who can’t dodge a speeding Dodge, and the odd unlucky coyote who wasn’t so wiley.
Increasingly, they have another challenge they must face – the constant crush of increasing volumes of cars and trucks driven by motorists hellbent on getting to where they’re going.
Which is why the crews that drive the one-trucks from the border of Mission to the Pitt River Bridge have to seek the safety of the night, when traffic volumes diminish and it becomes a bit easier to clean up the road.
“People don’t respect the lights on the vehicles when we’re out there,” said Ell, general manager at Mainroad Lower Mainland Contracting, in Surrey.
“That’s why, more and more, is becoming night-shift work.”
Sometimes the public’s carelessness becomes fatal. People just drive their vehicles into the trucks and equipment on the side of the road.
In the 1990s, two workers were killed in such an incident.
“A vehicle came through the barricade and killed our guys. That’s what everybody’s concerned about.”
But Ell wouldn’t blame the increasing use of cellphones.
Once the crews know they’re safe, they can focus on what there to do: keep the road surface clean and safe; keep the ditches clean so they drain away snow and rain; and keep the road right of way clear of tall bushes and grasses.
“They’re looking for unsafe conditions,” said Ell.
Lots of stuff falls from vehicles as they roll down the highway.
Construction debris makes up a fair chunk of that.
“It’s usually stuff that falls off vehicles.”
And wildlife who haven’t figure out how to cross safely, or who lack the speed to do so are often casualties. They, too, must be cleared from the road during one of the patrols done once a day.
Skunks and possums often get hit. Deer can be hit as well and, and coyotes. Family dogs and cats are other casualties.
Every four months, the entire highway has to be swept to remove the accumulation of gravel, rocks and sticks that accumulate, particularly on the shoulders.
“That’s an area we receive a lot of complaints on, especially with cyclists,” says Ell.
He stressed that Mainroad wants to keep the public informed of road conditions and the work they’re doing on them. A Twitter account provides instant information. There’s a 24-hour hotline.
Those duties just describe the chores during the fair weather of the warmer months.
Keeping the road clear when a winter storm dumps a metre of snow on the road then drops to -10 C is another story.
Rick Wills is one of the Mainroad crew ensures the road is spic and span every day. His responsibility earlier in the summer was a stretch of Lougheed Highway between Coquitlam and the Mission border that has to be patrolled every 24 hours.
In a cruise that takes less than an hour, Wills drives his yellow, one-tonne Ford Super Duty in the right lane, barely matching the speed of the traffic.
When he spots a piece of trash, he scoots over a lane, parks in the median in the middle of the highway and jumps out to toss the article into the back of the truck.
In a few minutes, he’s back into the driving lanes looking for more items that shouldn’t be on a highway.
If you’ve been a motorist and seen a dead animal on the road, Wills and his crew haul it to the nearest municipal storage facility. It’s a chore that must be done three or four times a week.
But mostly it’s materials or car parts that have to be kept off the road.
Wills has been doing the job for several years. It brings its own satisfaction because he knows he’s helping people get safely to where they’re going.
“I’m a taxpayer too,” he says. “It’s my road, too.”
He just wishes the motoring public recognized that.
Mainroad’s trucks and crews aren’t on the road for sightseeing or pleasure purposes, clogging up lanes just to inconvenience others, he says.
They’re there to make sure the road is clear and functioning properly so the other users reach their destination as safely as possible.
“We’re out there to make it safe for them but they don’t realize that.”
And they don’t want to wait.
“It’s kind of a fast-food society,” he adds.
People are just focused on getting to where they’re going.
“When we’re out there bigger equipment … the public doesn’t really give us a lot of breaks. You could have a close call pretty well every day.”