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Gateway Loop project to improve 'arrival experience'

Officials torn over $6.8M price tag

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It came with much deliberation, but this week council voted to approve a multimillion-dollar project that aims to improve guests' arrival to Whistler.

On Tuesday, Feb. 21, council awarded two contracts totalling $6.4 million for the reconstruction of the village Gateway Loop, the first point of arrival for a large number of visitors to Whistler. (Additional costs put the overall price of the project at $6.8 million.)

"It's really about improving the arrival experience in Whistler. The existing site doesn't do all the things we're looking for," said James Hallisey, the Resort Municipality of Whistler's (RMOW) GM of infrastructure services.

The RMOW has been exploring ways to streamline the "extremely chaotic" arrival experience at the existing site for years, and ultimately decided on a proposal to install eight coach bus ports covered by a 550-square-metre roof structure that will offer shelter from the elements. Other plans include a designated taxi loading and queue area, public parking, and a pedestrian median barrier along Village Gate Boulevard. The proposal also allocates space for washroom facilities, a public art space and bike storage that could be added in the future. The design is intended to connect to existing pedestrian connections in the village and aligns with the RMOW's recent efforts to improve wayfinding.

Earlier estimates pegged construction costs at $3.8 million. But when the tender process closed in July 2016, the RMOW found itself with two bids: one for $5.6 million, rejected for a lack of documentation, and one for $9.7 million, which staff deemed too costly. The project was retendered in November and broken into two phases in an effort to attract local contractors and lower the overall cost. The two cheapest bids, for civil and landscaping works and the roof structure, were nearly double the original budgeted cost. But in a construction market where costs continue to rise, council felt it was time to pull the trigger.

"It doesn't look like we're going to get anything less expensive," said Coun. Sue Maxwell. "Is it perfect? No, but I get the feeling if we wait for the perfect proposal, it will never come."

Several councillors echoed concerns over the high price tag, including Jack Crompton, who also felt more research is needed into guests' arrival experience.

"I think with a project cost that goes $3 million over our original budget, it doesn't deliver enough value," he said. Crompton, the CEO of shuttle service Ridebooker, ultimately voted against the proposal.

The other dissenting vote came from Coun. Jen Ford, who said an investment of this magnitude shouldn't be considered before the municipal Transportation Advisory Group delivers its recommendations to council, the first of which are expected this year.

"This feels like we're putting the cart before the horse," she said.

A fee-for-service model is one way the RMOW could recoup some of its costs. If adopted, estimates predict the new facility, which is expected to double Whistler's coach-service capacity, could bring in up to $200,000 a year in additional revenue.

"The user-fee idea is a good one but I don't think it should be a deterrent," said Coun. John Grills. "You don't want to pay fees every time the metre clicks and have drivers avoiding the Gateway Loop. I think business licenses or annual fees would be a good way to recover some of these costs."

The Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) fund will also cover at least $650,000. The remaining costs will come from the RMOW's reserve fund.

Phase 1 work will begin in April and is expected for completion in mid-June. Regional bus operations will be relocated to Day Lot 3 during that time. Installation of the roof structure is slated to begin in September and will be finished by the end of October.

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