A week after 200 cyclists amassed on Highway 99 to spotlight connectivity concerns presented by road upgrades, Squamish council pressured project managers to better an underpass built across Blind Channel, an effort that produced only a commitment to draw up a feasibility study in the coming months.
“What the highway design does is absolutely hostile to pedestrians and cyclists,” said councillor Patricia Heintzman during this week’s afternoon strategy session. “We have lost a lot with this highway. We’ve made some gains, but we have lost a lot.”
“We’re now over 70 per cent built on the highway,” countered Sea to Sky Highway Improvement Project director John Cavanagh. “This would be a major change, a major structural change, and it’s just difficult to accommodate.”
According to Squamish council, the underpass will be vital for public safety in coming years. As the district’s population balloons in tandem with myriad developments in residential, educational and industrial sectors, the Blind Channel underpass will offer the only point of connectivity for residents in Valleycliffe and Hospital Hill to access both downtown and the north/south trail system without using cars.
Mayor Ian Sutherland was able to wrestle a commitment from Cavanagh to conduct a feasibility study by July, 2008. But, when Councillor Corinne Lonsdale suggested that deadline left no time to act on the study’s findings, Sutherland pushed for completion by the end of May. Cavanagh could not commit to that deadline.
Controversy surrounding the underpass hinges mainly on issues of height clearance, lighting and design, all of which are inadequate for cyclists and safety, critics say.
When faced with these and other criticisms regarding surface sidewalks, Cavanagh reminded council that there was an opportunity to vent these concerns four years ago, before construction started and materials were purchased.
“Those bridges are built now,” he said.
Heintzman acknowledged his point, but said a safety issue still remains — whether or not council understood the implications of the project in 2004.
“Now it’s a reality, and we’re seeing it,” she said. “People didn’t realize there was going to be a cement barrier (in the middle of the highway). People run across that highway all the time. With a cement barrier in the middle, it’s a real safety concern.”
Councillor Raj Kahlon told Cavanagh that council is only trying to take the lead established by the province, which, with the introduction of a carbon tax, as well as this week’s announcement of a new act restricting vehicular emissions, is progressively greener.
“We’re just trying to follow up,” he said.
Urgency surrounding the Blind Channel underpass is very much a product of government spending habits. According to Sutherland, once the $600 million highway is complete, funding for overhauls will be a long time coming — until 2020, he suggested.
“We do know that would be the next time we get looked at by any government agency,” Sutherland added.
Cavanagh said the economics would have to support the district’s agenda. The feasibility study would establish what he called “warrants.” If pedestrian traffic at Blind Channel is significant, then the numbers will warrant a modification of the existing structure.
Cavanagh was joined by Ministry of Transportation colleagues Mike Proudfoot, assistant deputy minister, and Tracy Cooper, regional director for the South Coast Regional Office.
In addition to Blind Channel, a number of other issues were raised, most with far less tension than that of the underpass. Cavanagh explained progress on the Apron Trail, which wends between the Squamish Chief and the Stawamus River.
Speed limits were also broached. According to Sutherland, limits of 60 or 70 km/h in Lions Bay should hold true in Squamish, where limits could be set at 80 or 90 km/h. Cavanaugh said further discussion on that topic is needed.