Construction on Hwy. 4, along with the closures that come with it, will resume on Sept. 30 after too-frequent rock blasting accidents forced the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure to put its Kennedy Hill Safety Improvement Project on hiatus as it spent the summer sorting out a new strategy.
The $38 million project, being paid for by both the provincial and federal governments, aims to widen a 1.5 kilometre stretch of the highway that connects the Tofino-Ucluelet region to the rest of Vancouver Island.
The project kicked off in 2018 and was expected to be completed by the summer of 2020, but scheduled explosions being conducted to remove an encroaching rock-face often brought down more rock than expected, putting travelling motorists at risk and damaging the existing roadway, leading to the pause.
The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure announced on Sept. 21 that it’s ready to start blasting again, though things will look different this time around, with multiple daily closures expected to be replaced with a new schedule that will see the highway closed from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday-Friday, starting Sept. 30.
“Smaller and more precise daytime blasts, with sufficient time to clear debris, will help boost safety for people and will limit unplanned highway closures like those experienced by drivers in the early spring of 2020,” the announcement reads. “The new plan has been made following extensive onsite geotechnical investigations, which have determined that the safest time to blast is during daylight hours. This will allow for safe and efficient removal of loose rock after each blast.”
A closure schedule published by the ministry on Sept. 22, however, lays out daily closures from 5-7 a.m., noon-1 p.m., and 4-5 p.m from now until Oct. 5. Drivers should also expect delays outside of those closures as the current roadway can only accommodate single-lane-alternating traffic.
Here's a copy of the revised closure schedule to October 4, 2020.
The time slots marked by C indicate that the highway…
The project is now expected to run into the spring of 2021.
“Next spring, after the bulk of the challenging blasting is complete, conditions will be re-evaluated to determine if night-time blasting can safely resume,” the announcement reads.
Ucluelet mayor Mayco Noel suggested that the closures recommencement would likely bring “some grimacing and maybe a couple of eye rolls” from residents who have enjoyed the refreshing break from construction on the only road in and out of town.
He added that the announcement comes at a crucial time when the community’s tourism economy is trying to recoup some of the vital commerce lost during the spring and early summer’s COVID-19 travel restrictions.
“We need to minimize the negative impact on the travelling motorists. People have other options to spend their dollars and I don’t think that’s put into the equation,” he said, adding the closures likely cause some potential day-trippers to look elsewhere for leisure opportunities. “Even if that shrinks our tourism by 10 per cent, that’s 10 per cent that we don’t have…I can’t stress this enough, I want to see this [project] go, but not at the expense of the little bit of the economy and dollars that are coming to the West Coast right now.”
He added that he had hoped the ministry would spend some time during the construction pause to create a more effective communication strategy with the West Coast’s municipal governments, but that didn’t happen and, in fact, Ucluelet did not know that construction was about to reconvene until the ministry’s announcement.
“To my knowledge, to date, the ministry has not reached out to ask us or the West Coast whether 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. [closures] works. There’s been no direct asks to the district or the West Coast about, ‘What can we do over the next year-and- a-half to make sure that the travelling motorists are not negatively impacted,” he said. “It looks like there was nothing that was learnt from the communication aspect to date, which is disappointing…I’m not surprised. This is the status quo. They don’t have to consult with us if they don’t want to and this is it; this is what you end up with. I’m thankful that the project is going ahead, it’s just sometimes it’s in the details and sometimes the details are questionable.”
He added that, while he remains supportive and grateful of the project, concerns he’s consistently raised around the ministry’s lack of communication along with his requests that wireless internet be installed at the construction zone so that commuters stuck in a closure can get a hold of those who might be waiting for them, have gone unanswered.
“Things that matter to us on the West Coast, no one really cares about right now. All they’re thinking about is election,” he said. “Everyone is coming up with their own opinion because it’s all about previous history. I don’t think it really matters what it looks like on paper, it’s about the action and the end result. So, let’s be optimistic and hope that [the ministry] and the contractor will be able to minimize impact to travelling motorists and we can move on…There’s nothing that’s going to be quick about what they need to finish off.”