The outgoing highways maintenance contractor in the South Okanagan expressed shock Friday that the provincial government had awarded the contract to a Spanish company with no road maintenance experience, no staff and no Okanagan offices.

“I don’t want this to sound like sour grapes,” said Argo Road Maintenance president Jeff Wills, “but we’re very disappointed. The government based 70 per cent of its decision on price, so effectively the contract has gone to the cheapest bid. I hope it works out because this is about public safety.”

For the past 22 years, Argo has maintained all provincial highways and roads from Oyama to the Canada-U.S. border, including Highway 97, and west to Alison Lake.

The South Okanagan district also includes the Okanagan Connector from Peachland to the Pennask Summit.

Argo will continue all maintenance and snow clearing in the region until April 30.

Acciona Infrastructure Maintenance, a Spain-based multinational company, will take over May 1.

Acciona has operations in 30 countries, including a Vancouver office, and it is one of the main civil works contractors working on the Site C Dam in northern B.C.

Successor agreements mean Acciona will employ the 75 unionized Argo workers who drive snow-clearing and sanding trucks and graders, as well as sign crews and mechanics.

However, Acciona will be able to put its own managers and administrators in place.

Argo has eight managers and administrators who work the South Okanagan district.

Wills will try to relocate as many of them as possible from the West Kelowna office to the Kamloops office to work on the Thompson Kamloops highways maintenance contract that Argo retained, ironically in a bid process that included Acciona.

In conjunction with putting maintenance contracts up for tender, Victoria also instituted new rules.

They include making sure Class A highways (such as Highway 97 and the Okanagan Connector) are cleared to bare pavement within 24 hours of a snowfall and using deicing material when safe and effective.

The previous standard was 48 hours.

Contractors will also have to increase patrol frequency to 90 minutes on Class A highways during a winter storm.

Previously, it was four hours.

Contractors will also have to increase communication with the public about changing road conditions and other incidents affecting highway travel.

Wills said Argo agreed to all the new conditions in the South Okanagan bid it lost.

Argo also agreed to all the new conditions in the Thompson Kamloops contract it retained.

It seems to go with the territory that people sometimes complain about highway plowing not being fast enough or complete enough after a snowfall.

A total of 26 of the 28 road maintenance contracts in B.C. are being tendered and awarded on a staggered timetable this year and next.

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