Living where I do, crossing the border to Canada has been a common event. Sorry, Duluth-Superior, but it’s over two hours each way to you and an hour to Thunder Bay. More often than not, the lesser of the two travels wins the day. During some decades in the past I crossed near  daily when working on projects at the regional lab. I did the trip breezing along in the finest fair-weather sunny days, and a few times in the foulest storm dead of night with slushy sleet and hammering heart. I know the road and though I’ve reached an age to be a little less lead-footed (the lead seems to have gravitated up to my rear), I still like to forge along at what I call the limit of brisk.

So last week, a few days after a moderate snow, I took off for an appointment in T Bay at a realistic time to arrive two jots before the dot. The first third of my trip—to the border—was fine; the full driving track was clear of compacted snow. All was well. At the border, my terroristic threat was assessed to be at an acceptable level of risk and I was allowed in. I was good to go, happy in the knowledge that winter driving here is better than summer because there are no gawking tourists trying to spot fur traders or igloos along the roadway. But hold your horsepower. The road across the border was not so good.

Instead of bare driving lanes, they were between sixty and forty percent covered in compacted snow with a thin drizzle of brown salt-sand slung in a narrow band down the centerline, as if the intention were to lure drivers into games of head-on chicken. In a few spots the lane was almost clear, but in many more areas the compacted snow cover was eighty to ninety percent of the surface. Now, it’s not that a person can’t drive the speed limit on a snow-glazed road. You can. Transport trucks do so all the time with apparent great delight. Booming along is not the problem. Control and stopping are the things that suffer when driving a glazed road. You know this just the same as you are aware that at zero degrees or less (which it was that day), the mild sprinkle of sand and salt down the center had only slightly more ice melt effectiveness than a Hail Mary, which would have been of more theoretical use in the event of a spin-out on a curve when facing off with a transport.

In past years I found Ontario road crews as effective as those of the MHD at keeping well-travelled roads in fine driving condition. My conclusion, passing from great driving conditions on the Minnesota side to tricky ones in Ontario, was they must have experienced far wetter, slushier snow than we had, and this was the result. That made sense, though it was odd the weather change would have taken so dramatic a turn at the border. That’s funny, but you know as well as I that a few miles in the North Country can be a continent of difference in immediate weather. I once left Grand Marais in sun, found Tofte overcast, and turned around because at Little Marais driving had all the exceptional thrill of navigation inside a feather pillow. I changed travel plans that day and returned to Grand Marais, where, unlike the whiteout left behind,  it was partly cloudy and hardly snowed ten flakes. Knowing these things happen, we make allowances in our explanations of events.

The explanation I settled upon proved to be, as is often so, incorrect. I’d not have known had someone in the office where I was attended not made comment about how poorly the roads were being kept. I perked up. “Didn’t you get a lot of wet, heavy snow?” “Not that wet and heavy,” I was told, with the addition “It’s all contract work now and they just don’t go at the roads like before.” “Contract plowing,” I asked. “Yes,” I was told, “the government pretty much did away with our highway department except for a few office jobs. It’s all private contractors now, much good that’s done.”

Shades of Wisconsin politics jumping right over Minnesota to settle in Ontario land (trying to surround us, no doubt), it turns out that’s the case. Based on arguments about supposed efficiency and greedy unions, Ontario went private. Indeed, it could cost less, if you don’t figure in the added safety risk. If the contract service costs the same, you’re simply getting less for your money. But what can you expect of such? Is a private contractor going to pay an able crew kept sitting in reserve? No need to answer. No commitment from an employer results in less loyalty by the employee, and no particular reason to hire more than the minimally skilled for the responsibility of acting on behalf of public safety with little or no accountability going along with the “no benefits” of their part-time employ.

See how easy it is to not get what you pay for? Hand public safety or health or protection over to private contract and see how a public service gets turned into a profit margin. A ten percent reduction in sand use or plowing time converts to more profitability for the contractor, who no doubt will count increased collision repair as a public benefit for body shops. The feds have long been pushed that direction, with political forces demanding private reform of the Post Office into being required to cheaply provide all the services the big private carriers don’t want to bother with. Careers with futures are past fantasies of the idealistic and socially minded.

The next time you see a MHD truck on the road, wave and be thankful we have them, because once gone, with those skilled positions requiring dedication chopped up as job lots, we too late learn their value.