Parts of Paugan Road are closing while the Municipality of Denholm and the province spar over who should be responsible for the road after rainfall-driven floods washed out two stretches of the east-west road that links several West Québec towns.
I went to the emergency meeting Denholm Town Council called to vote on a proposal to permanently close Paugan Road. It was of interest to me both because I ride the road a fair bit and because I have a cottage on Lac St. Germain, which gets its road access from Paugan Road.
I drove up from Ottawa and the amount of flood damage really surprised me. It rained solid for a day and a half in Ottawa but it was just another weather story. Up in the hills things were far worse. The 307 — a main north-south artery — was closed at St. Pierre de Wakefield. On the detour, I saw at least one house that had been cut off from the road when its culverted driveway washed away.
Before I went to the meeting I drove down Paugan Road from Chemin de la Nature to see what the deal was. About 750m along, I saw the rain had washed about five foot swath across the road, maybe a foot deep. Water was still coursing through it. “That can’t be it,” I thought. But it would be enough to stop a city car, like the one I was driving, so I turned around and went to the meeting.
People jammed the Denholm community centre to hear mayor Gaétan Guindon describe the damage and explain the council’s decision.
Paugan Road Damage Report
Heavy rain on October 29 and 30 created a deep ravine across the road between Chemin Farrellton and Chemin Wilson, close to the Paugan Dam itself, taking a 10 foot culvert with it. “We found the culvert in the river,” Guindon said. He reckoned the crevasse measured 25 feet wide and 9 feet deep.
Further east, between Chemin Lac St. Charles and Chemin Petit Lac St. Germain, is another 80 foot long washout where “literally there’s nothing there.”
So the road is impassable in two places. Even by bike. The municipality has gotten estimates from the regional municipality’s engineering department that put the cost of repairing the road at between $2.5 and 3 million. Which is about twice as much as the municipality’s total annual budget.
Under existing cost-sharing arrangements with the province’s public saftey ministry, Denholm would have to pick up only 25 to 35 per cent of that cost. But that’s still on the order of half a million dollars. And it would require a referendum. And it would cost the average tax payer (property worth $200,000) $250 per year for five years.
At the meeting, there wasn’t a lot of tax-phobia expressed, but there were one or two people who made the uncontroverted claimthat Denholm residents already pay the highest property taxes in the area, noting that they’re higher than in Gatineau, where, for your money you get sewers, curb-side garbage collection and a raft of other public services including EMS response times that might actually help.
Denholm’s DG (the municipality’s main staff person) went further to point out that between people moving out and property values dropping, Denholm’s tax base has dropped by a few per cent over the last two years.
And they already have a debt of $2 million. So they’re feeling strapped.
Municipal Amalgamation back story
So why is a teeny tiny economic entity like Denholm in charge of a 22km road that links two regional municipalities and half a dozen communities? I’m a little unclear on this but apparently responsibility for the road was devolved to Denholm as part of the Québec municipal amalgamation effort of the early oughts.
What’s not clear is whether or not Denholm’s council went along with it at the time or whether it was forced on them, but Paugan Road is mostly in Denholm, so it became their responsibility.
And it consumes about half of their public works budget every year.
In February 2016, the council officially asked the province to take over Paugan Road and make it into a regional road. The province officially refused.
And they’ve been at odds ever since. When the road washed out in April 2016, Denholm built a bridge over the creek that took out its new culvert. Guindon says the province still refuses to pay their share.
Another thing that’s not clear is why it took Denholm ten years to figure out that paying for Paugan Road was too much to handle.
I expect it’s a matter of some contention and that its former councils have been happy to maintain Paugan Road. Keep your friends close, but your nasty miserable roads closer, to coin a phrase.
One of the most cantankerous exchanges at the meeting was between Mayor Guindon and a former mayor who was critical of Guindon’s handling of both current road repairs and past efforts to negotiate with the province. She kept asking why the province won’t pay for the bridge at Denholm Falls. Guindon did not answer.
Inconveniences and delays
No one is trapped or cut off, Guindon said. But there will be ‘inconveniences’. The municipality has re-jigged its arrangements with Low, Poltimore, Bowman, Val des Monts, Kazabazua and other neighbouring municipalities to ensure that fire, ambulance and police responses come from the most expeditious locations. They say. These assurances weren’t enough for a couple of people at the meeting who remarked, “15 minutes to us via Farrellton? They’re gonna need wings.”
The mayor also said that school buses, deliveries are going to have to drive further to get across the area. A home care worker pointed out that she has clients on the other end of Paugan and it’ll take her a lot longer to get there.
Dianne Vallée, the provincial MNA for the area had a newser with Guindon on Friday and went on the record saying that it was unacceptable that Paugan Road be closed permanently. Guindon took this as a defacto acknowledgment that the road was a provincial responsibility. “If it’s not their road, they shouldn’t be concerned that it be open or closed,” he said (Excuse my rough translation.)
But none of this argy bargy has been resolved and Guindon encouraged people to call Vallée’s office and the Ministry of Transport in Gatineau to put pressure on them to step up and provincial-ize Paugan Road.
Several people at the meeting offered to set up a petition and Guindon promised to supply contact info for the nascent campaign’s targets. But nothing has happened yet. I expect they’re a bit busy looking for deals on gravel and culverts. They have a few other roads to fix as well.