Gaping potholes, crumbling roads across rural N.L. threaten province’s plan to restore tourism industry

Drivers in Newfoundland and Labrador are crying out for asphalt as gaping potholes threaten summer road travel, in a year the provincial government is pushing to restore the tourism industry.

Scratch and patch season, also known as summer, often doesn’t come at all in the province’s remotest corners. This year, despite a pedal-to-the-metal marketing campaign welcoming back come from aways, not much has changed.

“The concerns are real,” said Transportation Minister Elvis Loveless last week. 

He hasn’t yet been down some of Newfoundland’s most dismal routes — perhaps chief among them, Highway 301 to Terra Nova, recently voted “Atlantic Canada’s Worst Road” by CAA members.

The Terra Nova highway, crumbling so severely in parts that it’s been reduced to rubble, boasts a sign marking its award. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

But he’s heard far and wide from residents asking about when their own local stretch of pavement might be restored.

“We’ve been complaining about the potholes, and the ruts, and the signage in particular,” said Ray Murphy, member of the Route 100 Road Improvement Committee.

The group held a rally last week, apologizing to tourists for the road’s condition and imploring government to send in a repair crew.

“We have several examples of vehicles being beat up,” Murphy said.

Road on west coast sinking

Over on the other side of the island, one municipal worker says locals are avoiding the only road out of town altogether.

Route 450, leading from York Harbour on the other side of the island, “has been an issue now for many years,” said Michelle Sheppard, town manager. “We’re at the point now where residents fear travelling over the road.”

Sheppard says the ground beneath the highway is sinking, causing cracks and divots and dropping the road by about 13 inches.

It’s now affecting tourism, Sheppard says: they recently had a tour bus cancel its trip to the community due to the road conditions.

“Word will get out that, you know, don’t go to that area,” Sheppard said. 

“With Come Home Year right around the corner … economic repercussions is what we’re looking at after all of this.”

Climate change a factor, minister says

The province set aside $151.4 million for its highways in 2022. But it’s not just about patching the asphalt, Loveless said: the structure underneath the surface also has to be maintained.

Politicians have poured much of their budget this year into repairing bridges and culverts, at the direction of the province’s engineers, Loveless said. The remaining money is doled out based on several factors: how often the road is used, its condition, and the size of the population it serves are all taken into account.

With hundreds of kilometres of provincially managed highways and relatively sparse taxpayer base, Loveless added, there’s only so much the province can fix in any given season.

Elvis Loveless is the Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Adding to the issue, he continued: Increasingly brutal freeze-thaw cycles in the winter, likely a result of the province’s changing climate.

“The weather patterns [are] definitely playing a role in … the state of our roads,” he said.

Murphy, for his part, says he’s been trying to secure improvement from the province for four years. As the Come Home Year 2022 campaign approached, he challenged the Department of Transportation with a checklist: 36 areas of damage to repair, “since the government’s putting some money into communities,” he said.

Only two of those items have been completed to date, according to Murphy.

“We have to expose it,” he said. “If government’s not shamed into doing something, it won’t be done.”

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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