In 2009, after seven years of work, the $600 million upgrade of the Sea to Sky Highway was completed. With an additional 80 kilometres of passing lanes, more sections of divided highway, fewer blind corners and wider shoulders the vital link with the Lower Mainland for everyone from Horseshoe Bay to Whistler became safer, more reliable and easier to drive.
Auditor General John Doyle's office recently released a report on the public-private partnership that rebuilt the highway and said, for the most part, the P3 project met the goals of increased safety, reliability and capacity, although he was less impressed with the project's delivery of value for money.
The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure said in an emailed response to Pique reporter John French that: "The data indicates significant reductions in road closures and reductions in the duration of road closures" since the highway project was completed. Details on data were scarce, although MOTI said there were 217 accidents on the highway in 2004 and 124 in 2011. The ministry is continuing to monitor and will report key indicators in the future.
While most would agree the highway has been vastly improved, use of the highway has also become more complex since the upgrades. It used to be just a transportation corridor, primarily for cars and trucks. It is still that, but it has also become a popular route for recreation, particularly in the summer. Cyclists, motorcyclists and sightseers have discovered — indeed, been encouraged to use — the Sea to Sky Highway. The highway has even become the link for "a cultural journey," a series of kiosks that tell some of the history and legends of the Squamish and Lil'wat Nations.
Bringing these different users together on the improved and presumably busier highway has not been a disaster, but there have been some growing pains.
The RCMP video of motorcyclists going more than 200 km/h and passing cars on double solid yellow lines is well known.
The additional passing lanes have, on the whole, allowed drivers who may want to enjoy the road and the scenery on Highway 99 to do that without having another car glued to their rear bumper, urging the slower vehicle to speed up or get out of the way. Further education about the use and purpose of passing lanes — i.e. for passing — is still required.
Cyclists and drivers are generally showing greater awareness and respect for one another, but it only takes one bonehead move for one group to curse the existence of the other. Which is surprising, since so many drivers are also cyclists and vice versa.
The popularity of the RBC GranFondo Whistler, which takes place Sept. 8, has made the Sea to Sky Highway a pilgrimage for cyclists training for the event, particularly on weekends during the summer. But we have been slow to recognize this fact. A study by Simon Fraser University students found "signs for wildlife... far outnumber those of cyclists." However, in the last week the electronic highway message boards have been changed and now tell motorists to "Watch for cyclists/maintain your distance." This is in addition to the message to watch for motorcycles.
The SFU study found four major hazards for cyclists on Highway 99: shoulder width, signage, maintenance and drainage. The authors proposed, "...the most appropriate mitigation methods to pursue are increased signage, more frequent shoulder-sweeping, and improvements in drainage and hazard marking." They suggested the mitigation efforts would cost $116,000.
Making the highway safer for cyclists should, in theory, make it safer for all users. The mitigation efforts suggested in the SFU study would be helpful but the real answer lies not with expecting government to do more, but with all of us taking responsibility for our actions and attitudes on the highway.
For Whistler and Squamish, the Sea to Sky Highway is the most vital link to the rest of the world. It should be equal parts transportation infrastructure and welcome mat. Yet too often we — cyclists, motorists, even pedestrians in Whistler — act like we are the only ones using it. Little thought is given to others on the road.
The stretch of highway through Whistler is particularly abused. The skid marks before each stoplight in Whistler are evidence of drivers who aren't thinking about anything other than getting to where they are going.
The highway upgrade included widening the road to three lanes through most of Whistler for the 2010 Olympics. Following the Games the road was returned to two lanes in most places and wider shoulders were created to encourage cyclists and pedestrians to use the highway. And they do. But it is common to see cyclists riding the wrong direction, creating a new hazard: two-way traffic on the shoulders.
The amount of detritus that falls off of and out of vehicles and is left on the side of the highway, especially in Whistler, is appalling. We wouldn't tolerate it on our own property; why do we consider it someone else's problem when it's on public property?
The rebuilt highway has been a benefit to nearly everyone. With a little more understanding that it belongs to everyone, it could be even better.