On the ground: Revelstoke traffic control person turns highways policy advocate

Revelstoke traffic control person Nick Thomas saw the aftermath of Trans-Canada Highway carnage first-hand for years, prompting him to get involved as a watchdog of provincial and federal highways policy.

Nick Thomas, who just retired as a traffic control person, has emerged as an informed and vocal critic of provincial highways policy. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

Most Revelstoke residents are fortunate not to experience the horrors of highway crashes first hand. Not so for Nick Thomas, a recently retired local traffic control person who spent years on scene following the aftermath of crashes that have left many dead and many more injured. This visceral connection to the consequences of provincial and federal policy decisions — especially the big promises touted by politicians through words, and those big highway billboards that announce highway projects years before they actually happen (if ever) — prompted him to action. He armed himself with knowledge and study of budgets and policy, and became a vocal commentator online about policy decisions, often demonstrating in-depth knowledge of what’s happening on Revelstoke’s deadly and dangerous stretch of the highway. We spoke with Nick to gain insight on the perennial Revelstoke goal of an improved Trans-Canada that will be safer for residents and travellers.

Revelstoke Mountaineer: How did you first get involved in commenting on highways policy?

Nick Thomas: In 2012 Christy Clark announced $650 million over 10 years for upgrading the Trans-Canada. I realized that it wouldn’t do more than keep up the slow progress – especially given the cost of finishing the Kicking Horse Canyon project. After the announcement there didn’t seem to be any attempt to deliver the promised funding. After the 2013 election the top priority of the new minister of transportation was to increase speed limits not upgrade the highway. That drove me to comment.

RM: How do your experiences on the highway as a traffic control person affect your involvement and take on highways policy?

NT: I’ve seen too much devastation from high-speed collisions — thankfully victims are usually in the ambulance before I get there. Routine maintenance on this highway is hazardous. Fortunately I’ve never had anything smash hard into stopped traffic, though I’ve seen countless close calls. On a multi-lane highway you can use lane closures, which are far safer for the public and workers than single-lane alternating traffic. Highway closures during high traffic periods are stressful. The closures between Christmas and New Year a couple of years ago were really hard work and there have been summer ones where traffic was coming in far faster than we could deal with it.

What about Revelstoke’s interests specifically? What changes to existing provincial policy do you think would deliver a safer, more reliable highway for residents?

The biggest issue right now is that the new government promised to accelerate upgrades but hasn’t put out to tender projects announced by the previous government (i.e. Chase West, Illecillewaet Brake check and Kicking Horse Canyon Phase 4. They have only recently asked for tenders for preliminary work on Salmon Arm West).

I think the ministry’s policy is that it isn’t cost effective to do upgrades if they are going to be four-laned later. Since four-laning isn’t going to be complete for decades I think this needs to change. For example accident-prone curves could be eased and left turn lanes built into Enchanted Forest and Peaks Lodge. The winter tire regulations are ineffective because the ministry approves all-season tires with 3.5mm tread.

Recently, I’ve noticed you’re drilling down into provincial transportation budget estimates, and even providing thoughtful comparative analysis of annual budget estimates. What drives you to take it that far? What do you learn from these exercises, and what insight do you think other Revelstoke residents could learn from them?

I realized that repeating the complaints that have already been repeated for years wasn’t going to make any impact. The government had made promises to fund upgrades and didn’t seem to be delivering so I wanted to check what they had spent and planned to spend. It didn’t take long to see that the government’s own information shows it isn’t keeping its promises. I thought that could be used that to get a response but it hasn’t worked with either the last government or the current one. In the first year of this government they spent less on upgrades than they budgeted and it looks like the same is going to happen again in their second year.

On my way to the Okanagan earlier this year, I came onto an MVI that happened about a minute before. A tractor-trailer unit sideswiped another, then crossed the centre line and crashed into the snowbank on the opposite side, nearly missing a head-on with a pickup with two Alberta sledders inside. Later, I checked DriveBC’s feeds, and there was nothing. It was the kind of thing that goes unreported and unnoticed. Do you think residents have a good picture of what’s really happening out there?

Some incidents don’t get reported on DriveBC, especially if they don’t impede traffic or are expected to be cleared up quickly. The RCMP don’t attend all incidents and I believe provincial accident data is based on their reports.

In your opinion, what should Revelstoke residents be doing to advocate for a better highway sooner? Where are the low-hanging fruits that would bring benefits sooner?

Although we need to keep badgering the provincial and federal politicians we have to understand that the highway issue doesn’t affect enough votes to make it a priority in Victoria or Ottawa. Not much will change unless it becomes a national or provincial issue, which I don’t see happening. The governments have been going after the low-hanging fruit – most of the four-laning that has been done in the last 20 years has been west of Salmon Arm and in Banff National Park.

Focusing on operational issues such as traffic rules enforcement, road maintenance, communication, emergency response and other non-infrastructure steps, what do you see as the needing the most attention?

I came from the UK 10 years ago and unfortunately police over there have just about given up on enforcing traffic rules (except for speed cameras) so we are better off here. CVSE (Commercial Vehicle Safety and Enforcement) have increased their activity here although it would be nice if they had a permanent presence. Locally I think people do a pretty good job with the resources available – more people and equipment would obviously help, but that costs. When there are issues, like cross-city traffic being blocked during closures, they are looked into and changes do get made. The remote avalanche control devices at Three Valley are a big improvement.

What about infrastructure issues? Your letters point out that at the rate we’re going, the promise by both main political to four-lane and divide the highway from Kamloops to the Alberta border is going to take many decades to complete. Promises are fine; what should people know about the reality on the ground?

If the Kicking Horse Canyon project is completed as has been announced it will have taken 23 years. There is at least twice that much work left to do in the mountains around Revelstoke. The Kamloops to Alberta Border program has no plan, no estimated cost and no timescale — without that it is just political spin. Some sections of the highway, like Three Valley, are probably going to be as horribly expensive as phase four of Kicking Horse Canyon ($450m for 4 kilometres). I won’t be surprised if the government decides that is unaffordable. So Revelstoke is going to remain a two-lane bottleneck for the foreseeable future. The aging highway isn’t going to need less maintenance in future and the summer traffic peak is spreading into the spring and fall construction seasons so delays will increase.

As someone who worked on the highways, is there one message you’d like to get across to residents who don’t spend a lot of time on them?

Something we all fail to live up to sometimes — give driving your full attention. If you are paying attention you can anticipate and avoid most problems. When something unexpected happens you don’t have time to switch focus and work out what is going on before taking avoiding action.



Aaron Orlando
Aaron Orlando is the Creative Director of revelstokemountaineer.com and Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. He's worked in Revelstoke as a journalist and editor for the past ten years. Got tips on Revelstoke news, entertainment, sports, outdoor life, community or anything else? Email aaron@revelstokemountaineer.com or call/text Aaron at 250-814-8710.