Potholes still rule the West

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B.C.’s business-friendly Liberal government that replaced the NDP just after I wrote the previous column has cut taxes and taken steps to restart the province’s economy. The Vancouver Island freeway, which runs just inland from the Strait of Georgia, now extends north to Campbell River, easing access to Mount Washington and distant Mount Cain. The Sea-to-Sky Highway from West Vancouver to Whistler, which for decades inhabited an alternative universe of snail-like improvements perennially outpaced by never-ending traffic growth, was jolted into high gear by B.C.’s successful Olympic bid. Local sources who travel the road if necessary tell me the improvements are coming along speedily, with high-quality technical work and minimal travel disruption.

Sadly, however, the vision of B.C.’s rulers fails to extend any farther afield. Beyond, the story is one of neglect. While roads too numerous to mention throughout B.C.’s vast Interior fall into this category, the most egregious example is the Trans-Canada Highway. I could repeat, word-for-word, what I wrote in early 2002, for nothing has changed. A 225-km section flanking Revelstoke killed 126 and injured more than 2,200 in 12 years. On a trip up to Mica Heli- Guides with editor Iain MacMillan last April, we found the dead-end, unimportant side road to Mica Creek in vastly better shape than the Trans-Canada itself. This crucial road hasn’t been substantially improved since it was built 43 years ago.

B.C.’s recently re-elected Liberal government refuses to get the job done right, frittering away money, time and road-building resources on incremental upgrades. At a cumulative cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, with traffic backed up at construction sites for years on end, the results are tiny improvements to travel times, convenience and safety—i.e., potentially no net gain whatsoever.

Some small projects have managed to add a passing lane on one side but, having consumed tens of millions to improve a few kilometres, including blasting miles of mountain slope and moving thousands of truckloads of material, it never occurs to anyone to put a passing lane on the other side as well. The incremental cost of a fourth lane would be a fraction of rebuilding a separate stretch with a single passing lane on the alternate side. Doesn’t anyone in B.C.’s huge bureaucracy understand this?

B.C.’s defunct NDP government nixed private-public partnerships to build much-needed new roads in remote areas. It laughed at the idea of bypassing the tortuous Kicking Horse canyon using a tunnel (a simple and cost-effective idea used extensively in every Alpine country in Europe). The Liberals have proved similarly bone-headed. Their daring plan to privatize the Coquihalla freeway, making it a permanent toll road, and redeploying the sales proceeds to build other highways, was dumped after hysterics from a few locals. Now that’s political backbone from a government elected with a massive mandate for change!

The dire situation extends to B.C.’s “other” highways, its ferry system. It can charitably be described as a mess following the NDP’s multi-hundred-million-dollar fast ferry fi asco. After that, the governmentrun system spent several years mired in a stasis worthy of a cash-starved banana republic. There may be some cause for optimism going forward. B.C. Ferries, now a Crown corporation, has ordered three large new ferries from Germany and is trying to implement a host of other service improvements. Time will tell.

B.C.’s less populous but more productive neighbour, Alberta, also woefully neglected its roads for 20 years, despite hurling billions at teachers, nurses and other political enemies starting in the late ’90s. Last year the province fi nally awoke and launched paving projects hither and yon. Most—like the secondary road near Calgary on which I commute, whoo-hoo!—lie on the prairie and will be of marginal benefit to skiers. However, one project that’s particularly welcome (although outside the province’s jurisdiction) is the just-begun upgrading of the Trans-Canada Highway in Banff National Park, from Castle Junction to Lake Louise. Twinning and fencing this heavily travelled 25-km stretch will cut travelling times for thousands of daytrippers and save numerous lives—of humans and wildlife.

Another hugely important project, announced in October and therefore years from construction, will be rerouting and rebuilding the tortuous section of Hwy 3 through the Crowsnest Pass in southern Alberta. Used by thousands to access Fernie and Kimberley, Alberta’s plans for a six-lane roadway will carry a huge tab. But it will end the current, crazy situation of sports cars, SUVs, decrepit pickups, RVs and huge semis all roaring down the main (and largely residential) streets of historical pass communities. Travelling times should be slashed and safety increased dramatically.

Still, Alberta’s politicians suffer from a stunted transportation vision. For one thing, today’s paving-fest began all at once. Surprise: asphalt, already on an upward trajectory from soaring oil prices, shot through the roof or became unavailable, idling paving crews during crucial workweeks. For another, numerous highways outside ski country that funnel weekenders from urban centres toward the mountains are still being ignored. The Calgary-Edmonton Hwy 2 corridor, one of Canada’s three busiest roads, should be six lanes throughout. Instead the province is spending millions merely to widen medians.

In B.C. and Alberta today, getting there defi nitely ain’t half the fun for roadbound skiers. I’ve long thought one reason for the neglect of our highways is that politicians, being self-important sorts who think their time is actually valuable, go everywhere by taxpayer-funded aircraft. If they drove, they’d realize good roads are in their own interests and, presto, paved road-miles would balloon even faster than politicians’ salaries.

For more on the subject: www.skicanadamag.com/Features/ Columnists/WesternView/home.html

George Koch
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