An Oungre-area farmer is wondering what it will take before the provincial government will do something about the state of Highway 18, after he was told by an American trucking firm they refuse to drive on it out of fear of damaging their trucks.
The Department of Highways and Infrastructure, meantime, says the highway doesn’t warrant an expensive upgrade to a paved condition to handle heavy truck traffic.
Toby Torkelson, whose family runs Torkelson Commodities Inc., farming some 6,000 acres west of Oungre, got the bad news from the trucking company, Kyllo Trucking of North Dakota, and is unsure how he’s supposed to now move his crop of canola to the crushing mill in Velva, North Dakota.
One of the difficulties Torkelson has run into is they harvested the best quality canola they’ve ever had, from 1,500 acres, in the 44 years they’ve been farming there, and they are running out of bin space because they aren’t able to get it trucked out. Soon, he added, they’re going to start cutting their corn on 10 quarters of land, the best crop they’ve had in the three years they’ve been growing it.
In a letter to MLA Doreen Eagles, he said of this situation, “The drivers said the roads were not fit for travel, and the likelihood of damage to the trucks was not worth the rate of standard pay. You know, they are right and I don’t blame them.”
Torkelson noted that a neighbour hit a pothole near his place, shearing the front wheel off, and the vehicle ended up sitting in his driveway for four weeks until the owner was able to move it.
“U.S. drivers who come up that way ask, ‘why don’t you guys do something? Why don’t you fix this?’ I don’t say anything, but this is an atrocity,” said Torkelson, adding he knows that rollovers occur on this east-west corridor every year because of its condition. “They mock it, they think it’s ridiculous.”
A spokesman for Highways and Infrastructure, Doug Wakabayashi, explained there is a reason the highway isn’t being upgraded the way Torkelson and others who use it want, and pointed out that the Village of Lake Alma and the area RMs turned down a proposed option to turn it into a primary-weight gravel road.
“Highway 18 is a thin-membrane road, and it’s in poor condition because it’s essentially like a local dirt road with an asphalt seal on it,” said Wakabayashi, noting that province-wide there are about 5,200 kilometres of thin-membrane highways right now.
To do the sort of upgrades with the proper thickness of asphalt to handle truck traffic would cost in the neighbourhood of $800,000 a kilometre, or $4.2 billion to do all 5,200 km, said Wakabayashi.
He acknowledged that not only are there producers using this road, but oil activity in the area has also increased the truck traffic — but it’s still not high enough to make it a priority on the list of thin-membrane roads that need upgrades.
In order to be placed on the priority list, “highways are graded on quantifiable measurable data like traffic volume, public safety and so on, and as the budget allows,” said Wakabayashi. “The highest-ranking highways are upgraded as money allows.”
So far, he added, Highway 18 is not on that priority list.
Thus, an alternative option was developed to make Highway 18 a “super-grid”, with a high standard of gravel.
“They’re cheaper to build than paving, and they’re smoother than a failed thin-membrane highway. It would be a primary weight gravel road so shippers can haul larger loads safely,” said Wakabayashi — but this option was shot down by the meeting of area RMs and the Village of Lake Alma.
“Our crews will continue to do what they can to keep the road as safe a driving condition as they can,” said Wakabayashi.
Torkelson, meanwhile, pointed out to MLA Eagles that the original commitment of Highways was to grade the highway once a week, but months can go by with no grader seen.
“My nearly 70-year-old father pulls a land leveller on the highway with a 50-year-old tractor every couple days so the trucks can bring grain to the farm, the same grain that we are now having trouble finding trucks to haul out,” he said.
Torkelson cited the case of a neighbour who farms in both the U.S. and Canada, and may now be selling his Canadian property because of the bad road conditions on the Canadian side.
“It’s been this bad for 15 years, and it’s just getting worse. The cover they put on, that Highways was experimenting with, has failed. Since it started going downhill and was made quasi-gravel eight or nine years ago, it’s a public safety issue,” said Torkelson.
“It’s completely gone to hell. The road is scattered with hubcaps and mufflers, tools tailpipes.”
Concluding his letter to his MLA, Torkelson said, “I am charging you to take action of this situation; there is no other acceptable response.”