Pot-holed to death in B.C.

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Pot-holed to death in B.C. Welfare kills. Do they have those patronizing commercials in the East, where a cop-voice warns “Speed Kills!”? I think the evidence is stronger that welfare kills, or at least an excessive government fixation with welfare. B.C., Canada’s tourism playground, also has one of the worst road systems in North America. Bad, and deteriorating. The impressive road-building of the otherwise unlamented Vander Zalm era in the ’80s simply stopped in the ’90s. The new NDP government had other priorities. You guessed it: billions of dollars in extra welfare payments and other socialist hand-outs to favoured voting blocs.

Even the least prosperous American states are crossed by divided Interstate highways, promoting commerce, tourism–and highway safety. But B.C. has an almost Third World road structure. With a few welcome exceptions, it’s drive slowly or prepare to die. Huge stretches of B.C.’s roads are rough and pot-holed. Passing lanes are scarce. Speed limits are low and enforced by dogmatic cops. Getting down the Okanagan Valley, for example, is a joke of low-speed zones, traffic lights and creeping locals oblivious to other drivers’ needs.

I log maybe 10,000 road km in B.C. most years. I’ve motored through the southern Interior, out to the Coast and up past Prince George to Mackenzie and Prince Rupert. The only road-building in evidence over the last decade has been the glacial upgrading of the Sea-to-Sky Highway from Vancouver to Whistler, the paving of the Duffy Lake Road from Lillooet to Whistler and a few minuscule upgrades of the Trans-Canada near Salmon Arm. For a huge province of four-million people, that’s pathetic.

Of course, a few like it that way. Every remote B.C. valley holds people who moved there for the isolation. Among the most vocal opponents of the proposed ski area on Glacier Dome/Jumbo Glacier near Panorama were residents in the Duncan area–on the other side of the Purcell Mountains. Why? They feared ski area development might require a road over Jumbo Pass, bringing travellers, traffic, business and jobs to the Duncan region–things they didn’t want.

Others say B.C.’s road system must change. “We have lobbied in the past for better local access roads to the ski hills themselves, and succeeded in getting gravel access roads blacktopped,” says Jimmie Spencer, president of the Canada West Ski Areas Association. Now, he says, it should be the highways’ turn. “Enhancements from the access points, such as airports, to the skiing towns would be hugely helpful. We need a good plan for the Sea-to-Sky Highway if we’re serious about the 2010 Olympic bid for Whistler.”

The Trans-Canada Highway is the most in need. This grandiosely named road was supposed to help knit our nation together. It ought to be freeway from the Alberta border to Vancouver. Sadly, most of the B.C. portion is built to the standards of a U.S. secondary highway. I’ve driven better, wider, smoother state roads in Montana–a poor state.

It’s tempting to call the Trans-Canada a joke, but the reality is deadly. While highway fatalities are falling nationwide, here they are rising. Just over a year ago, a bus full of Taiwanese tourists slammed head-on into a semi-trailer in one of the snowsheds on Rogers Pass, killing six and injuring 21. The highway’s 225 km from Sicamous to Golden logged 126 deaths from 1988-99. A local group has set up a website, www.fixtranscanada.org, to raise awareness. If you don’t think welfare kills, check out the site’s photos.

Yes, B.C. is rugged, making road-building expensive, but that excuse only goes so far. If you want to see what can be done in mountains, visit Switzerland, where far tougher terrain than B.C.’s contains well-maintained highways and even freeways. Where the mountains are too obstinate to go over, the Swiss go under. The country contains hundreds of kilometres of road tunnels. In one case, there’s a tunnel interchange where two freeways meet underground.

The best solution to the Trans-Canada’s deadly Kicking Horse canyon section just east of Golden would be a 10-km tunnel. A friend of mine, a geologist, drew up basic plans and contacted an Austrian tunnelling company about its feasibility. Its president replied that this would be one of his easier projects. But when I put this concept to B.C.’s then-premier Ujjal Dosanjh at a press conference, he laughed.

When a B.C. company proposed the same section of road be rebuilt in a more conventional manner, but using a public-private partnership structure that would be funded by investors and repaid through tolls, the NDP nixed the idea on ideological grounds. I guess it preferred highway deaths to seeing anyone earn a profit.

Something needs to be done. A dozen of B.C.’s great ski areas are nearly sealed off from the world. This can’t be good for ski areas–nor skiers. And certainly not for anyone who wants B.C. to have an economic future.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2002 issue.

George Koch
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