Prepared for winter's worst

Darrell Cole
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Improvements should prevent recurrence of last Novembers crisis on the Cobequid Pass

COBEQUID PASS - It will be a long time before Amherst's Boyd Taylor uses the Cobequid Pass in bad weather.
Stranded for 15 hours last Nov. 19, after an early season storm paralyzed the toll highway, Taylor doesn't feel the province and the corporation running the highway have done nearly enough to fix the problem.
"Putting new signs up over the highway is not the answer. That's money they could have used to get more plows and more people to keep the highway open," Taylor said. "I don't have a lot of confidence after what we went through."
Taylor, a veterinarian, was returning from meetings in Halifax when he became stranded on the highway near the toll plaza. His vehicle was one of about 1,500 stuck on the highway for the night.
"It was 5:30 p.m. when I drove into that bottleneck and it was 8:30 the next morning when I was able to get turned around and make it back to Debert," said Taylor.
Transportation Minister Bill Estabrooks knows there are people still leery of travelling the highway in winter, but pointed out much has been accomplished since the storm.
"We have followed the recommendations made by the consultants.
We have paved the crossovers so we can get people off the mountain when we have to close the highway and the signs are a big step," the minister said, adding that department crews were ready to clear snow on Nov. 1 this year. "We've learned our lessons from what happened and taken steps to minimize the chances of it happening again."
The highway got its first test over the weekend when just over 10 centimetres of snow fell over the 44-kilometre highway that runs between Thomson Station and Glenholme.
Estabrooks said there is much more communication and co-ordination between government, the highway corporation, police and local EMO and snowmobile clubs that should improve the response next time.
"There'll be a co-ordinated approach so the left hand knows what the right hand is doing," Estabrooks said.
Still, he added, motorists themselves have some responsibility in bad weather.
"It doesn't matter if it's the Tantramar Marsh, Mount Thom, the Canso Causeway or the Cobequid Pass, motorists themselves have some responsibility when it comes to driving during bad weather," Estabrooks said.
Taylor said anything would be an improvement over what happened a year ago.
"They were just so unprepared last year. All they had to do last year was put a salt truck out there, but they didn't have a salt truck to put out there because they were busy hauling gravel," Taylor said. "Even after we were all stranded they didn't do anything to help. They should have had someone going vehicle to vehicle with water and blankets and making sure everyone was OK."
The highway's toll plaza manager feels everyone is better prepared this year.
"I believe it's a case of so far, so good," Wayne Crossan said. "This was probably just a warm-up for the real stuff that's coming later, but we're as prepared as we can be."
Following the storm, the province and the corporation that runs the highway responded to a consultant's report by taking a number of preventative steps including erecting overhead electronic signage at both ends of the highway and paving the crossovers that run between the east and westbound lanes.
"Experience has taught us that it's usually one side of the highway or the other on which we have problems, not both," Crossan said. "By paving the crosscuts, traffic will be able to get across the median and head back in the direction they travelled."
Paving the crossovers is essential so larger vehicles, such as transport trucks, can get across the median without becoming bogged down in gravel and mud.
With weather being so unpredictable, Crossan said there will always be the chance of people becoming stranded on the highway, but he feels the steps taken by the corporation and the province should minimize that risk.
Key to preparations is an expanded and updated protocol that sets out who does what when the need to close the highway arises.
"It's not so much a new protocol as an updated one. It basically says who does what and where and when," said Crossan.
During the summer, Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal began a multi-year paving program through the Wentworth Valley while other initiatives include the hiring of a storm co-ordinator for northern Nova Scotia, the placing of CB radios in government plows and thermal mapping of the highway route so operators will have a better understanding of what to expect during certain conditions.

Organizations: Thomson Station

Geographic location: Halifax, Debert, Wentworth Valley

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