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Snowplows faced 'challenging' congestion on Alex Fraser Bridge, says ministry

The province says it's reviewing the ordeal that saw motorists stranded on the Alex Fraser Bridge for hours Tuesday night.

B.C.'s Ministry of Transportation says a “full force” of de-icing crews and snowplows was still not enough to clear the Alex Fraser Bridge of snow Tuesday evening, leading to several car crashes that ultimately closed the crossing for about five hours.

Janelle Staite, regional director of highway services, told media Wednesday that 30 “pieces of equipment” were deployed on highways; however, a raft of problems compounded, leading to “some very extraordinary commutes for folks.”

First, traffic congestion began earlier than normal in the day, as commuters rushed home early. The bridge had one lane closed each way for crews to de-ice the cables in the late afternoon, said Staite. Snow then began falling very quickly, as much as six centimetres in an hour, she said. Car crashes then occurred on the bridge and the snowplows subsequently got stuck in traffic.

“The congestion was another piece of it that that made it challenging for the pieces of equipment to do the work,” she told reporters.

Finally, snow and high winds forced the closure of the bridge, regardless of the vehicle accidents, said Staite.

Drive BC announced on Twitter at 8:09 p.m. Tuesday that the seven-lane bridge had closed following “several vehicle incidents.”

At 12:51 a.m., the bridge re-opened with two northbound lanes and one southbound lane.

The ministry is reviewing the ordeal that saw motorists stranded on the bridge deck for hours, said Staite, who noted several times that extraordinary congestion was the “big issue.”

“I can absolutely assure you that we're having a debriefing to see how do we ensure that, moving forward, we don't see the same type of congestion that we experienced last night,” she said.

That debriefing will include weighing the risks of keeping the bridge open versus having motorists stuck in vehicles for hours, potentially without food and water and running out of gas.

Given all resources were allocated to the foreseeable snowstorm, Staite was asked if more equipment and service was needed.

“The resources they (Mainroad Group) have are in line with the response specifications that we've laid out.

“Again, part of it is just being able to get to those roads to be able to plow them. So, if there are opportunities for the public to move over with the amber lights... that enables our contractor to ensure they are meeting the specifications that we laid out,” she said.

Asked about communication, Staite said the ministry warned the public of the coming storm on Monday via social media accounts.

Staite stressed the need for drivers to be prepared for winter conditions and stay home when they can. She said the ministry is not contemplating winter tire mandates for the Lower Mainland.

Dale Bracewell, principal at Mobility Foresight and a longtime transportation expert, says there’s a shared responsibility when it comes to safety.

He points to a few examples, including employers offering employees the chance to work from home when big snow events are in the forecast. That would reduce road congestion, he said.

Bracewell added coordination between all the different agencies is also important.

“Was there one clear place that we could go yesterday to sort of find out about all the driving and transit conditions?” he said.

'We were all starving'

Harsimran Bagga was one of the many Metro Vancouverites stranded on the Alex Fraser Bridge.

He got home at 3:43 a.m. early Wednesday morning, some 12 hours after leaving his downtown Vancouver job.

“It was not fun. Horrendous would be another nice word to describe that situation,” the Surrey resident told Glacier Media.

“It was chaotic. No one knew what to do. People were leaving their cars on the road.”

Bagga recalls a truck sliding right in front of him. 

“You fear for your life in those moments,” he says. “It’s a shocking thing.”

Two of his friends, meanwhile, ended up walking five kilometres to a SkyTrain station. One of them had to use the washroom, he says.

“That was when I was like, ‘What is going to happen? Am I going to sleep here tonight?’ I had alarms on for every 20 minutes just so I don’t sleep. I had windows cracked. It was a pretty serious, intense situation.”

The storm hit as Prabhnoor Bagri, also of Surrey, was wrapping up classes at UBC.

“I had no idea how I was going to get home,” she says.

Three hours into her commute with two others, the group makes it to the George Massey Tunnel.

“My map updates, and they’re like, ‘Road closed.’ No way you’re getting back to Surrey,” she says with a laugh. “And then we waited for three more hours. … We were all starving. It was cold. I had to continuously shut my car down so I wouldn’t run out of gas.”

Bagri and her friends decided to stop for food around 3 a.m. and even considered checking into a hotel.

“We call over 20 hotels and all of them are like, ‘We’re fully filled up for the night.’

“At this point, we’re sitting at the Subway… So we wait it out for maybe 45 minutes in the car, constantly checking for updates on Drive BC, Twitter… and finally we saw the Alex Fraser cleared up.”

The group made it back home at 5 a.m.

Snowstorm by the numbers:

10-25: centimetres of snow reported across the Lower Mainland

30: Vehicles removing snow or de-icing highways for Ministry of Transportation

1,050: Tons of salt in City of Richmond works yard

3,000: Tons of salt in City of Vancouver works yard

17,000: Tons of salt in City of Surrey works yard

89: BC Ferries sailing cancellations

250: Dollars (minimum) in fines for not clearing snow from your sidewalk by 10 a.m. (Vancouver)