Waskaganish’s Ryan Erless is no stranger to the James Bay Highway (JBH). He’s traveled up and down the 620 kilometres of the decaying two-lane road too many times to count. Like many Crees, Erless knows the highway’s most infamous potholes, cracks and bumps well enough to mark them on a map. After a particularly treacherous trip south in early June, he decided to do the next best thing.
Throughout June, Erless marked the highway’s most dangerous potholes with bright orange pylons in an effort to help motorists identify them from a safe distance.
“The bumps and curves are bad, but the potholes look like they’re getting worse,” said Erless. “Between km 178 and 150, it’s really bad. Things get even more dangerous when it’s raining. The potholes fill with water and you don’t know how deep they are.”
For many travellers, road conditions on the highway are a source of increasing concern. The James Bay Highway Road Conditions Facebook group is currently one of the most popular Cree-administered sites on the web, with over 4,400 members. By comparison, the Grand Council page and Eeyou Eenou Police page both have fewer than 3,000 followers.
The Road Conditions group paints a grim picture of the James Bay Highway, with some travellers posting photo after photo of potholes deep enough to stand in. Others post warnings about which sections of the highway are could cause a lost hubcap, burst a tire or blow out a car’s suspension.
The Société de développement de la Baie-James (SDBJ) has been responsible for the highway’s maintenance since 2002, with a large part of their maintenance budget for the JBH being contributed by Hydro-Québec. However, the crown corporation cut its annual contribution last year by 40%. Erless says those cuts get deeper with each passing vehicle, and that his trips down the JBH since the snow melted tell him that road conditions are getting dangerously worse.
“I’m hoping people will see my pylons and know that the road needs fixing,” said Erless. “We always talk about the road on Facebook or somewhere else, but there’s nothing being done about it. This is just a little thing I hope will create a lot of attention and a need from the people to fix the roads.”
Some of that attention is already on its way. In April, Quebec Transport Minister Robert Poeti announced that $97.5 million would be invested over five years into repairing the JBH as part of the Couillard government’s modestly rejuvenated Plan Nord. Details behind this pledge remain vague, but the investment would be the largest since the JBH was built in the early 1970s. However, travellers like Erless aren’t convinced that the slow drip of construction funds will be enough to render the route safe for northern drivers.
“There’s 600 kilometres worth of road that need to be fixed; $97 million is not going to do very much, especially when some potholes aren’t fixed properly and become a problem again every spring,” Erless said.
In the meantime, Erless said he would continue to mark any potholes he comes across with cones, and encourages other travelers to do the same.