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Council backs off barrier fight

Province says no to continuous median barrier on Highway 99



Whistler council will not be pressuring the province any further for a continuous median barrier on the Sea to Sky Highway from the resort to Horseshoe Bay.

That decision was made Tuesday night after a presentation from Peter Milburn, executive director of the Sea to Sky Highway improvement project, who outlined the reasons why a continuous barrier was not on the province’s work plan.

Despite hearing his rationale on the reasons not to build the barrier, three councillors wanted to write a letter to the Ministry of Transportation to reconsider the barrier as part of the $600 million highway upgrade.

Councillor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, a personal injury lawyer involved in the case in which seven lives were lost in a head-on collision in Squamish in January 2004, did not mince her words.

"Until the highway is divided… the carnage will carry on," she said as she tried to drum up support on council to keep the pressure on the province.

She said the province is building a straighter and wider highway, which means drivers will go faster. With no barrier that will ultimately spell more deaths on the road she said.

Councillor Eckhard Zeidler was on side, saying he believes the province will not build a continuous barrier because of the cost. The $600 million budget has been set and the public/private partnership contract has been signed, he said, and he got the impression from Milburn’s presentation that safety on the road has been compromised because of the fixation on a set budget and because it’s difficult to rework the P3 contract.

"I think it’s sad," he said. "We’re compromising safety."

Wilhelm-Morden, Zeidler and Councillor Ralph Forsyth wanted to continue the barrier campaign but were defeated by the rest of council, as Mayor Ken Melamed cast the deciding vote.

Instead council will write a letter to the ministry asking them to re-build the highway as safely as possible regardless of the cost.

The province’s plans call for a centre barrier to be in place in all the four-lane sections of the upgraded highway, but not in the three-lane sections.

Milburn outlined the reasons why a continuous barrier was not on the work plan as more than 40 community members turned out Tuesday to hear him speak.

Among other things, Milburn said, a barrier has never been done anywhere in Canada on a mountain highway smaller than four lanes. There are several technical issues associated with it, not the least of which is the barrier obscuring sight lines on tight curves and blocking traffic if an accident happens.

"It’s clear to us that it doesn’t make sense to put a median barrier in substandard locations," Milburn told Pique Newsmagazine last week.

He did admit, however, that by increasing the budget on the project the province could make it safer.

"More could be done, for sure," he said.

Retired highway consultant and Whistler resident Ross Walker said by thinking outside the box, and spending a little more money on the upgrades, the road can be made much safer with a median barrier. Most of the fatal accidents, he said, are the result of head-on collisions where drivers cross the median line.

"It’s a matter of trading off degrees of safety," Walker said last week. "We know we kill people when they go across that centre line."

His proposal called for breaks in the barrier every kilometer in three-lane sections, which should solve some of those problems. If there was an accident, the police could direct traffic through one of the breaks in the barrier, set up single-lane traffic in both directions for a kilometre, and then redirect traffic back through another break in the barrier.

His solution isn’t perfect he admitted, but it could reduce the number of fatalities on the highway due to crossing the centre line.

"There are answers to all these things if you want to look for them," he said.

Walker, with the support of Whistler council, was able to review the province’s plans for the highway upgrades in February and wrote a report which shows ways to build a continuous barrier.

Councillor Tim Wake said he was challenged Tuesday night, with engineers on the ministry’s side saying one thing and Whistler’s local engineer saying another.

The presentation from Milburn led Wake to believe the province has seriously considered the barrier and perhaps Whistler was taking an emotional response to a technical issue.

"I’m not sure we know better," he said.

Walker said if Whistler is to get the province’s attention now residents must begin a letter-writing campaign to the premier and the transportation minister.

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