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Highway plans close to being finalized

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Details of the upgrade to the Sea to Sky Highway are finally becoming clear.

It is expected to cost up to $670 million to complete the safety and reliability upgrades and construction should begin in 2004 and finish in 2009.

During a presentation to Whistler council on Monday night Peter Milburn, Sea to Sky corridor project director with the Ministry of Transportation outlined the current and most likely the final option.

• There will be four lanes from Horseshoe Bay to Lions Bay;

• There will be two lanes from Lions Bay to Porteau Cove;

• There will be three lanes from Porteau Cove to Squamish;

• There will be four lanes through urban Squamish;

• There will be three lanes from Squamish to Whistler.

Public consultation is still taking place and will focus on the organization of the delays and closures during construction.

One of the main issues under discussion, said Milburn, is how to mitigate the effect of the closures on the communities up and down the road.

If the ministry decides to expand the lanes by using a split-grade model – where the new road is built separate but parallel to the old – delays will be minimal.

Using this type of model Milburn said 90 per cent of traffic would not be impacted by delays and closures

But this type of construction costs considerably more.

On the other hand the ministry could pursue a plan to pave the rail bed of the BC Rail line and use it as a detour route during road closures as the original road is upgraded and added to.

However, there would still be delays and therefore an increased economic impact on communities, especially tourist-dependent Whistler.

Milburn is confident that rail timetables can be worked with so that trains are not moving through residential areas late at night and freight is not inconvenienced too much.

In places such as the stretch north of Lions Bay where it will remain two lanes, using a rail diversion system could minimize delays during safety upgrades.

Currently there are 11 million passenger trips on the highway a year. By 2025 there are expected to be 18 million trips.

Congestion is expected to become a regular event by 2012 if nothing is done to upgrade the road.

Once again, Milburn reiterated that at this time "the province is not pursuing any alternate routes."

All upgrade work would be done at night if at all possible. Only blasting and scaling work would be done during the day, for safety reasons.

As much as possible the work would be done during Whistler’s shoulder season to also help minimize impact.

Currently the plan is to do much of the work between mid-September and mid-November and again from mid-March to mid-May.

"Most of the time the road would be available for free flow of traffic," said Milburn.

How the upgrade is to be financed is still in the works but it is likely to be accomplished through tolls, increased gas taxes, and joint federal and provincial funding.

Milburn did add that the government is very aware that municipalities do not support tolls unless there is an alternate route.

A series of public open houses will take place over the next week.

Whistler will host one at Millennium Place from 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct.17.

Squamish will host one on Oct.16 at the same time at Totem Hall.

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