I was sorely pissed at Wednesday’s slapdash snowclearing in here in Duckburg, but that was before lurid accounts of blizzard-induced suffering and inconvenience reached their crescendo yesterday. Eight dead. People trapped in their vehicles for hours on Highway 13 while the SQ, the Ministère des Transports (MTQ), towing contractor Burstall and snowclearing contractor Roxboro crossed their arms, each refusing to move until the other cleared the way.
By all accounts, it was a battle of jurisdictions gone berserk. The SQ claims its patrollers called the MTQ more than 100 times starting at 6 p.m., when a tractor-trailer rig spun out and blocked all three southbound lanes at Hickmore. The SQ claims it tried without success to convince the MTQ to close the highway as traffic piled up. Roxboro, with the exclusive contract to clear the 13, couldn’t or wouldn’t send out its ploughs until Burstall had removed immobilized vehicles. Burstall couldn’t move vehicles because of two truck drivers who refused to be towed and the SQ wasn’t there to order them because its patrollers were busy elsewhere. It wasn’t until around 4:30 a.m. that Montreal firefighters took it into their own hands to begin removing stranded motorists to a fire department bus before they could begin disentangling the jam by directing vehicles off the nearest onramp.
No sooner had the record snowfall stopped that the politico-legal shitstorm began. Leaders of both opposition parties began by demanding Transport Minister Laurent Lessard’s head. Vehicles were still being towed off the 13 as ambulance chasers specializing in class-action lawsuits began signing up an estimated 500 clients with the lure of a $2,000-plus-costs payout, with the City of Montreal as a co-respondent. The SQ placed a lieutenant on administrative leave. At the chronically dysfunctional MTQ, the assistant deputy transport minister in charge of catastrophe co-ordination – a woman – was a handy scapegoat.
Philippe Couillard’s office moved quickly to get the government out from under a growing wave of recrimination. Thursday, Couillard, his hands firmly clamped around the necks of Lessard and Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux, made a short, unconditional apology and named veteran government fixer Florent Gagné to conduct an independent inquiry into what went wrong.
From an experiential standpoint, Gagné would be an inspired call, having served as both SQ director-general and as a former MTQ deputy minister. But Gagné has lived under a cloud since his testimony before the Charbonneau Commission probe into the construction industry, which accused him of turning a blind eye to collusion. Wiretap warrants unsealed since the commission’s report was presented strongly hint it was apparently decided by both the Liberals and the Péquistes that senior elected officials and their opposite numbers in the civil service would enjoy a form of diplomatic immunity.
So, you ask, what has all that to do with Wednesday’s Highway 13 fiasco?
Begin with Roxboro, one of the rare examples of a private-sector contract to clear snow from a major public highway. According to the MTQ, Roxboro’s ploughs were unable to keep up with the intensity of the snowfall by the start of Wednesday’s rush hour. Tractor-trailer rigs were rolling at normal highway speeds because they could see over the whiteouts, so motorists were having to deal with truck-caused whiteouts as well as snow buildup. In seconds, a fender-bender froze that river of traffic for the next 10 hours. Was Roxboro negligent, or did its low-bid contract set the stage for what could have been a tragedy with loss of life? Why couldn’t the SQ reach the MTQ? Why weren’t the MTQ’s patrollers able to convince their bosses to close Highway 13?
It’s mind-boggling that the MTQ’s eyes and the SQ’s cops, each alone in his or her cruiser at that time of day, wouldn’t have supervisors capable of breaking through the layers of bureaucracy to those with the power to co-ordinate an emergency response.
I’ve always questioned the ridiculousness of having the SQ patrolling Montreal-area highways, where city cops have no jurisdiction. Isn’t everyone using the same roads? Moreover, police vehicles aren’t designed to patrol in those conditions. The OPP uses big SUVs, even in urban settings. Why doesn’t Quebec?
Communications are a big silo issue. The MTQ patrols have their frequencies. The SQ, SPVM and Montreal firefighters have others. Theoretically, they have common clear channels. But do they function? Are they monitored? Are there cellphone numbers that allow patrollers to cut through the bureaucrap? If any of these answers are no, catatastrophe co-ordination is a myth.
Then there’s truck traffic. Montreal’s highway network, designed and built half a century ago, was never designed for today’s volumes and velocities, yet there is no effort on Quebec’s part to slow down traffic, especially not truck traffic in bad weather. Throughout the U.S. and Europe, real-time speed-reduction and lane-closure signage is common. Some jurisdictions go as far as to limit or ban truck traffic from some highways during rush hour.
I’ve saved the worst for last, and that’s our responsibility for our own safety. Why is it that people can listen to a weather forecast for a severe winter storm warning, yet leave home without adequate clothing, emergency survival kit with a bottle of water and at least half a tank of gas? I see vehicles with all-season tires. I see motorists stopped on the highway, using snow to clean their windshield.
Last month, I eyewitnessed a spectacular crash on the 40 as a westbound cube van was broadsided by a blast of wind on that stretch just east of the highway scales. Another moron in a rush, but at least he didn’t take anyone with him.
Quebec’s obstinate refusal to make its highways the slightest bit safer makes no sense from an economic or public-security perspective. I’m betting Gagné won’t touch any of that because he has the background to know those issues are not part of his mandate. Just like personal preparedness isn’t a part of ours.
Updated Monday, March 20: The head of the SQ’s Highway Patrol is the latest head to roll in the wake of last Wednesday’s blizzard crisis on Highway 13. This follows Friday’s arrest of a long-haul trucker who faces charges because he didn’t see why his truck, which wasn’t stuck, needed to be towed. Quebec’s shoot-the-survivors response to public relations misfires satisfies public bloodlust. But suspending bureaucrats and arresting a Sikh trucker (while sparing les homeboy de Ste Clothilde de Tabarnak) won’t address the core issue – Quebec’s bunkered bureacracies competing for power, influence and budget envelopes.