B.C.’s Ministry of Highways arrived on the West Coast last week to talk to locals about the upcoming Highway 4 upgrade that will begin March 1 and bring daily delays and nightly closures for the next two years.
Provincial staffers hosted public information sessions in Tofino on Jan. 23 and in Ucluelet on Jan. 24 to explain the closures and collect feedback on any possible changes that would make the schedule more palatable for local commuters and businesses.
“If there’s something we haven’t thought of, be it around a long weekend or be it around a certain time there’s a significant commuter population or volume that’s coming through, then, absolutely, we do still have an ability to adjust that in the contract,” B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure Deputy Regional Director Janelle Erwin told the Westerly News during Jan. 24’s presentation.
The $30-million project is aimed at a particularly narrow and winding 1.5-kilometre stretch of the highway near Kennedy Lake and will include blasting a hazardous and overhanging rock wall.
“You won’t have that rock that’s right there in your face as you’re driving by,” Erwin said. “When you’re driving along there, you feel like the rock’s coming through your window.”
The ministry estimates it will take two years to complete the work, which includes the removal of roughly 300,000 cubic metres of material, mostly rock.
“It will look vastly different than it does today, that’s for sure,” Erwin said adding the blasted material will be recycled into a new viewpoint overlooking Kennedy Lake. “It’s more efficient, less costly and less greenhouse gases by doing that and now we’ll have this great viewpoint.”
She added barriers will be installed between the road and Kennedy Lake and that currently consistent ‘waterfalls’ descending from the rock-face onto the roadway will be gone.
Beginning March 1, commuters can expect 30-minute delays between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. as the road will be open to single-lane alternating traffic as well as two, one-hour, full-closures from noon-1 p.m. and 4-5 p.m. each day.
The road will be shut down in both directions from 9 p.m.-midnight, 1-4 a.m. and 5-7 a.m. every day.
Erwin said the ministry came up with the closure schedule by researching the highway’s traffic volumes over the past few years as well as BC Ferries schedules.
“It was a very, very, intensive traffic analysis combined with an understanding of the commuter population and understanding that we needed to keep industry moving,” she said.
She added the work can be halted immediately to make room for emergency vehicles.
“There was a lot of comfort from folks when we said we certainly have contingency plans in place to get the road open right away if there is an emergency,” she said.
Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne attended Jan. 23’s meeting and told the Westerly News that she believes her constituents are “resigned” to accept the closures because of the highway’s current condition.
“I think this is a project that’s going to test our patience for certain,” she said. “I feel most people are absolutely behind the project and the reasoning for it, but there is a little bit of struggling, I think, with the suddenness of it and the fact that it’s here and we have a lot of work to do to contact our guests and let them know.”
She added possible impacts could hit the West Coast’s tourism economy as well as local businesses that rely on trucks bringing goods over the highway.
“But, you know what? In three years, we’ll look back and we’ll probably hardly remember,” she said. “In an ideal world, we would have had a lot more lead time to plan ahead for the summer. But, we don’t…This is now and we’ve got to deal with what we’ve got.”
Tourism Tofino Executive Director Nancy Cameron told the Westerly News that she does not believe the highway’s delays will convince travellers to spend their vacation budgets elsewhere as long as local businesses, particularly accommodation providers, provide clear communication to incoming guests.
“As long as we’re prepared, we’re doing the most we can to make sure that people are aware and we’re doing everything we can to make sure that they’re not inconvenienced, then we’re not expecting significant impacts because of the construction,” she said.
She said Tourism Tofino and Tourism Ucluelet are developing a coordinated communications plan to help tourists schedule their travels.
“This plan is one that will convey that we’re accessible and open for business still here on the West Coast of the Island and also one that encourages all businesses to proactively educate their customers so that they can avoid delays and inconvenience,” she said.
“We care about our visitors and making sure that they have good journeys here.”
The project’s $30-million bill is being split between the federal government and the province.
More information about the project can be found at the Ministry’s Kennedy Hill safety improvements website through www.gov.bc.ca.