Fatal logging road accident reignites concerns over condition of road to Tahsis

Fatal logging road accident reignites concerns over condition of road to Tahsis

The road between the small village of Tahsis and Gold River on Vancouver Island is long and windy. The forest service road — the only way in and out of Tahsis — has a paved section, but the rest is made up of gravel.

It's a route Tahsis resident Lori Bennett has travelled many times before.

Friday night's fatal bus crash on a forest service road to Bamfield has reignited concerns about road safety across the province and, for Bennett, at home.

In May, she was leaving her village en route to an appointment in Campbell River, when a deer jumped in front of her car.

Bennett said she instinctively jerked the wheel. On any other road, she believes she would've been able to correct, but she says the gravel was thicker than normal, like "ball bearings."

She lost control.

"Oh, this is going to be bad," she remembers thinking as her car plummeted 23 metres off a cliff, rolling end-over-end three times.

"I was absolutely shocked to find that I was OK," Bennett said.

Other members of her community of 248 year-round residents haven't always been as lucky. Her friend went off the road in April 2018 and is now in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

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'The road is hazardous'

For those living in Tahsis, certain much-needed amenities lie in neighbouring communities; the closest is 65 kilometres away. Bennett says she travels to Campbell River for everything from groceries to doctor appointments.

"Everything is out there, and we must travel this road," but, she says, it's not being taken care of.

Bennett says she had raised her concerns with the province, but she fears the government won't be able to justify a paved road for a village with such a small population.

"We live here because of the beauty and it's affordable," she said. "But the road is hazardous."

Residents say driving between Gold River and Tahsis can be quite a bumpy ride

The province made upgrades to 13-kilometres of the road in 2018, applying sealcoating which included spraying a mixture of asphalt and water onto the road, then spreading and compacting a layer of gravel to embed it into the asphalt. Another 13 kilometres had previously been sealed.

But Bennett is concerned about the other 60 per cent of gravel road.

Residents frustrated over alleged lack of upkeep

The contract to maintain Head Bay Road switched hands last year, eventually being awarded to road maintenance company Mainroad, which is responsible for grading operations to ensure a level road along the route.

"Crews perform grading operations on a regular basis, sometimes weekly or even daily depending upon the weather conditions as per the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure's contract specifications," said Mainroad in a statement.

But Bennett says there are always potholes and her concerns are echoed by Tahsis deputy mayor Sarah Fowler. 

"The road is breaking down our cars and it's breaking down our bodies," said Fowler.

Since the contract was awarded to Mainroad, she alleges she hasn't personally seen the grader in action, only parked at the side of the road.

Among the residents, Fowler says there's a consensus that there's a lack of compliance by Mainroad to fulfill its contractual duties and a lack of oversight by the province — at the expense of those who call Tahsis home.

"A lot of people are very frustrated," said Fowler.  "We feel like we take our lives in our hands every day we go out." 

Ministry finds Mainroad in compliance

The CBC reached out to the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure which said staff has completed over 50 monitoring records and three audits on Head Bay [Forest Service Road] since Mainroad began its contract in September 2018.

It said it has found Mainroad to be in compliance with the ministry's maintenance specifications, adding ministry staff perform visual inspections of the road at least once every three weeks.

But, the ministry acknowledged the concerns of Tahsis residents.

"The ministry will continue to work with its maintenance contractor to ensure they continue to meet the specifications for this road maintenance as required by their contract."

Deputy mayor Fowler says she will follow up with the minister at a scheduled meeting of the Union of B.C. Municipalities in September.