Road trip pro keeps northern BC highways smooth

Written By Rob Shaw

Very few people have seen B.C.’s north quite like Cailey Brown. From the smallest backroad to the busiest highway, from Prince Rupert to the border of the Northwest Territories, Brown has driven all the roads in between. In fact, it’s her job.

As the Ministry of Transportation’s northern region surfacing manager, part of Brown’s duties twice a year include climbing into her ministry truck and driving as many of the 3,800 kilometres of road in B.C.’s north as possible, in an exercise called the “windshield survey.” Along the way, she stops to take frequent notes about road conditions.

“That’s a lot of highway,” she admits. “It takes a couple of weeks.”

“I’m an introvert,” Brown adds, chuckling. “So that probably helps when I’m out on the road for long periods of time.”

Still, it’s a vital exercise. 

‘One of my favourite parts of the job’

Much of the decisions around what roads get resurfaced, repaved and repaired come from Brown’s long hours spent surveying highways alone (as well as from contractors who drive around in high-tech pavement evaluation vehicles).

“It’s probably one of my favourite parts of the job, to be honest with you,” she said. “I get to see a lot of highway that most folks don’t get to see.

“Just last week I was in Fort Nelson and drove Highway 77 up to the Northwest Territories. It’s super low (vehicle) volume, but it’s our network. Most people won’t get to see it in their lifetimes.”

Resealing on Highway 37N: after too many seasons of heat and thaw, degradable aggregate shows its age. [Photo Cailey Brown]

The result of all that work this year is almost 300 kilometres of paving projects on highways and sideroads in B.C.’s north, valued at $62 million, which were announced this week.

The list includes 14 kilometres of resurfacing on Highway 16 near the Vanderhoof Tourism and Cultural Centre, worth $8.2 million, and 54 kilometres of resurfacing on Highway 5 near Blue River, north of Clearwater, worth $8.4 million.

Even amongst resurfacing projects, though, there are distinctions.

For example, sometimes the ministry uses conventional repaving techniques, with a lifespan of 15 years, like is the plan this summer near Vanderhoof. Other times, like near Blue River, it chooses “hot-in-place recycling” where the top 50mm of existing asphalt is heated, milled off and remixed with a rejuvenating agent and 25 per cent new asphalt to create a fresh pavement top that uses less fuel, less aggregate and less pollution.

“That’s a B.C.-born and supported industry,” said Brown, of hot-in-place recycling. “It continues to be a heavily-used strategy in all our highway networks.

“Some parts of the province, particularly in the north — the Peace Region comes to mind, and Stikine — we don’t have a lot of aggregate, and the aggregate we do have is really far away from the job… so this is definitely an excellent tool.” But the life expectancy is usually only 12 years.

B.C.’s roads require constant repair because they take such a beating.

Old Summit Lake Road near Prince George before its paving makeover. [Photo Cailey Brown]

That’s especially true in the north, where the freeze and thaw cycle is particularly hard on pavement. There’s also pavers that scrape the asphalt in the winter, abrasive substances spread on the road to create traction in ice, extreme heat that weakens bonds in the summer and water that seeps in during the freshet period. And that’s not even counting the wear and tear from the high industrial use by heavy trucks in the logging and gas sectors.

“Much of the highway network in the north was initially constructed when trucks were much smaller and trucks were less frequent,” said Brown. “Things have changed.”

The province has been working to make major routes stronger, and is now experimenting with modifying its asphalt using polymers and fibres designed to make it more durable.

“It’s kind of tricky with asphalt, particularly in the north, because we want the asphalt binder to be flexible so we’re not seeing a lot of cracking, so the pavement is able to move in those freeze-thaw cycles, but we want it to be robust enough that it’s not turning to a plastic state when it hits those high temperatures,” she said.

During the province’s record-breaking heat dome in 2021, temperatures were so hot in B.C.’s north that the asphalt looked like it was melting — a process known as bleeding, where oil builds on the surface and the road becomes soft, forming ruts as vehicles drive over it.

The cracked, rutted, weakened road structure on Highway 2 in Pouce Coupe. [Photo Tim Meszaros]

Summer wildfires also destroy the roads. An early-season fire north of Fort St. John this month crossed the provincial highway, and Brown has already made a note to check later whether the heat unravelled the pavement.

Roads also crack, expand, deform and in some cases begin to chip apart depending on the strength of the substrate soil underneath — a common problem in the Peace Region where heavy trucks and weak underlying soil create a double-whammy of road maintenance headaches. Inevitably, there are potholes.

Yet even knowing which northern roads to repair is only half the battle. Getting crews there can be an entirely different problem. 

“[Paving} is a tough job … dealing with bugs, wildlife and traffic.”

Cailey Brown

Some stretches are so remote that ministry contractors (who work six days a week from June to September) have to leave civilization for long stretches at a time, travelling hours and spending nights at campgrounds and at the homes of people willing to provide accommodation in nearby communities.

Hot in-place resurfacing work done on Highway 29S near Tumbler Ridge. [Photo Cailey Brown]

“It’s a tough job,” said Brown. “Not only air temperature, but you are standing next to hot asphalt and it’s even warmer. You are dealing with bugs, wildlife and traffic. It’s hard work.”

Occasionally, the government gets to put down pavement for the first time in an area, such as this year when the plan is to pave the Highway 37 north corridor near Red Chris Mine in the Stikine region.

“Anything on Highway 37 north, that’s a tricky one for us because it’s so remote,” she said. “A lot of our jobs, we don’t even have cell coverage. So that gets tricky as well.”

The government does pay a contractor with a “multi-functional pavement evaluation vehicle” camera to test numbered highways in the north annually, and side roads every two years, to help inform repaving priorities. 

But not every road can be reached with regularity. So Brown’s twice-annual manual tours become crucial to help her develop a rolling plan for the north.

“I have the next two or three years pretty much fleshed out,” she said.

Brown has a mining engineering technology background, and is one of only three regional surfacing managers in the province with duties to personally drive their road networks and oversee paving operations.

On the road again: Cailey Bailey surveying Chief Lake Road near Prince George. [Photo Alan Donohoe]

At 36, she said the job is a perfect fit for her, and she has little aspiration to do anything else. Based in Prince George, she enjoys the long drives on remote roads.

“It’s not a job for everyone,” she admits.

And it can be a bit all-consuming too. Any time she’s on the road, even during off hours, she finds herself making internal mental notes about the local pavement quality and potential repairs.

“Even when I go on road trips with my husband he’s like — oh, wait, you’re working,” she said.

“It’s not a job for everyone.”

2023 Northern highway resurfacing highlights:

  • Highway 16 Carmen Hill Road to the Vanderhoof Tourism and Cultural Centre (14 kilometres)
  • Highway 5 Whitewater Bridge to Albreda Pit Road (54 kilometres) 
  • Highway 97 and Fort St. John area side roads (27 kilometres, which includes partnering with the City of Fort St. John)
  • Highway 16 Dome Creek to Lasalle Lake Recreation Site (40 kilometres)
  • Highway 37 Burrage Hill to Snapper Creek Bridge (26 kilometres)
  • Highway 37 and 37A Bell Irving Bridge No. 1 to Bear Glacier (47 kilometres)
  • Highway 16 and McBride area side roads (60 kilometres)
  • Highway 16 and Skeena area side roads (28 kilometres)