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Howe Sound on one side, rock cliffs on the other, and A HIGHWAY runs through it

Motorists have seen few disruptions, but Highway 99 upgrade has conservationists and property owners alarmed.



"Are you scared yet?"

Fifteen metres up a sheer slope I’m sitting in the jump seat of a 30-ton articulating rock truck. The driver, Tia Alexandria, is backing up the slope near Lions Bay to the excavator smoothing out the future roadway behind us. Alexandria is coaxing the Cat 750 over a troublesome rock in our path. As the three-month old, $400,000 truck leans precariously toward the drop I wonder if articulating can also mean unsteady.

"By the time we come for a second load he will have noticed this rock and cleared it away for us," Alexandria says.

Yay to that.

It’s 7:30 a.m. and not yet light out but Alexandria has already been on the job for over an hour, trucking debris for contractor Peter Kiewit Sons from one site to a nearby fill as part of the Highway 99 reconstruction project. Divided into 13 DB or design-and-build sections, this is DB3, nearing completion and slated to open its four lanes to traffic Dec. 14.

Alexandria will run her rock truck – they’re not called dump trucks anymore – about 10 times between here and Brunswick Pit 7.5 kilometres to the north. Even at a top speed of 50 km/h each run takes the 23,000 kg truck about 45 minutes. Alexandria spends a lot of time waiting, waiting for the one other truck working with her this time of year to be loaded so she can then back up the slope; then waiting for the excavator operator to load her vehicle with up to 28,000 kg of dirt, trees, and rock. She works 10-12 hours a day helping to rebuild the 100-kilometre project and it’s a job she says she loves.

"I had worked in the military when I was younger, had worked in night clubs waitressing and bartending, and just didn’t want to be in the bars any more," says Alexandria, 46, as explanation for her career switch eight years ago to flagger. She held up stop signs on Vancouver Island projects for a while, but also pitched in as labourer, shovelling and raking, before advancing to paving crew driver. She joined Kiewit this year, and when the opportunity came up to drive one of the three new CATs she said yes.

It’s not the kick-butt stereo system ("I hardly ever listen to it, I prefer the quiet," she says) or the turn-on-a-dime steering that attracts her – it’s the scenery. "This is the most beautiful job for me to work on: being near the water, seeing the eagles fly by," she says.

"There are a couple of ravens that follow us around – they’re very curious," she says, looking up to the trees.

The 100-km Highway 99 section under construction is "very unique, blessed with both staggering natural and recreational resources," reads a 2001 Ministry of Transportation highway study. But the highway has historically been notoriously unsafe – 30 fatalities and 754 collisions from vehicles crossing the centre line in the past nine years. (See Letters to the Editor this week.) With commuter numbers between Vancouver and Squamish increasing four per cent annually and in preparation for the 2010 Olympics, the provincial government earlier this year awarded the contract to the consortium Sea to Sky Transportation Group to make the beautiful but deadly highway safer and leaner.

Someone else who appreciates the beauty surrounding the highway is Horseshoe Bay resident Bruce McArthur. The 68-year-old retired electrician remembers hiking the Baden Powell Trail that runs above the highway with his parents when he was five years old. The 14 km trail, with its roots as a native trading route, runs from Horseshoe Bay to Deep Cove, through several biological zones. But large sections of the trail will be wiped out when a new 2.5 km section of the highway is added. Dipping inland half a kilometre from Highway 99’s present course, the overland section will bypass the B.C. Ferries terminal congestion but take its toll on nature, McArthur says.

"It’s hard to convince people that there is going to be enough damage done here that will really affect anybody," he says as, panting, I struggle to keep up with him on the Baden Powell Trail. The grade we are hiking, eight per cent, is about the same motorists will contend with and one that two local conservation groups McArthur belongs to say are unsafe. An eight per cent grade, a rise of eight feet or eight metres in a 100-foot or 100-metre section, is the maximum allowed in Canadian highway design.

In half an hour we pass six other hikers and through three biological zones, one dry arbutus, one deciduous with maples and alder, and the third, a two-hectare wetland area by Larson Creek at the junction of Baden Powell and Black Mountain trails. It’s a spot where earlier this year McArthur’s sighting of a rare red-legged frog was confirmed by a district biologist.

Neither the finding nor a lawsuit launched by the District of West Vancouver was enough to dissuade highway designers from the overland route. Surveyor stakes indicate the highway will abut the wetland. Federal fisheries guidelines recommend standard setbacks should be between 15 and 30 metres, says Steve Jenkins, West Vancouver’s environment co-ordinator. Jenkins says the district’s fear is that the wetland will suffer a massive tree blowdown if the highway is built beside the area.

"Our concern is that once it’s opened up," Jenkins said, "it’s like opening up any other forest, the resulting blowdown is a cumulative thing. We have a report from an expert in blowdown that says the whole wetland could blow down – all the trees."

The snow is crisp underfoot at the wetland as McArthur points out tree scorches from a 1947 fire. He was 10 when his father volunteered to fight the fire and his mother and other local women made sandwiches for the crews. "I remember looking out the window and seeing the glow of the hillside all red with fire – it was terrifying."

Opposed to the $130-million overland section not just because of environmental concerns, McArthur, who has worked as project manager on large-scale electrical construction projects in Iran, Columbia, and B.C . , says feeder routes for the highway have not been well thought out.

"Look at how Taylor Way and the Lions Gate Bridge jams up between 4 and 7. We’re going to encourage more development up the corridor by fixing up this highway but what the hell is going to feed it?"

As co-chair of the Western Residents Association, he and the group also oppose the overland section for safety reasons. They are concerned about the Upper Levels section where the new route diverges from ferry-bound traffic. Construction drawings show that motorists have seven exit options in 200 metres, about 1000 metres short of what Canadian highway design regulations recommend.

Earlier this week, after viewing a computerized rendering of the overland route, West Vancouver district and council unanimously rejected the province’s proposed route.

Peter Milburn is the executive project director who deals with tough questions such as when building a supposedly safer highway, why build what some say is an unsafe overland section when a tunnel would do a better job?

"The tunnel is a less safe option," Milburn said. "There would have been no median divider and there would have been potential for head-ons."

Milburn maintains there are only two primary exit options off the Upper Levels to the proposed overland section and says highway design has been examined and approved by provincial experts. As to the eight per cent grade: "In West Vancouver there are already 14 per cent grades," he said. "All the exits are safe and all of the roadway in this design is safe."

Keeping motorists and her crew safe is Teresa Fernandez’s daily concern. As we drive from Brunswick Pit to one of her crews setting up 8.5 kilometres away at Strachan Point Road, the traffic control supervisor acknowledges how the shifting configuration of three-foot tube pylons could alarm motorists.

"There are certainly drivers that can be confused by it," she says pointing to the tunnel of pylons ahead of us. "When you look at the road and there’s orange here, orange there and a sign over there it’s like almost a driver’s training course or something. But that strikes back to our job – are we making it as obvious as we can as far as traffic control goes?"

Apparently not this morning. In the northbound dead or closed off lane a cherry picker attempts to unload and place barriers, but traffic is stopped in the active lane trying to exit via the off-ramp blocked by the cherry picker. Traffic control people or flaggers, don’t have enough pylons to divert traffic. "Southbound is passing him (a flagger) quite close and he’s standing there unprotected," Fernandez says as she reaches for the radio to call for more pylons to be brought to the crew.

Fernandez has been in traffic control for almost 20 years, starting as an 18-year-old in the Pemberton area. She has an almost fierce attachment to the highway project, proud that no one has been hurt on the project and delays to motorists have been minimal. She chooses her words carefully when asked about cranky motorists.

"When you work in a restaurant or a store customers have their complaints that need to be resolved. But here on the highway I don’t have to deal with that, I wave and I smile and they carry on," she says.

Fernandez drives the 50 km speed limit through the construction zone and admits to not having much patience with motorists who don’t.

"Sometimes I want to ask them what the heck their hurry is," she says as we slow to turn into Brunswick Pit. At that moment a green Ford Explorer pulls out to pass her, crossing a double solid into the path of oncoming traffic. "Like I was saying," she says.

Linda Spears opens the door to her sunlit-filled home perched on Strachan Point before I’ve barely finished giving my name through the intercom. She and husband Peter, along with 14 other property owners, have been cut off from northbound access to the highway by the continuous centre median.

"We’ve been screwed," Spears says. She believes that even if they wanted to they wouldn’t be able to sell the waterfront home where they’ve lived for 10 years and on which they’ve just finished a three-year, $1 million renovation.

To head north on the Sea to Sky Highway, the Strachan Point residents must first drive four km south to Ansell Place to turn around. They must overshoot their former turnoff by 1.5 kilometres to an Ocean Point Drive turnaround to gain access to their home on Strachan Point Road. But the left-hand turn, on a decline, is dangerous.

"We almost got hit the other night because we couldn’t see headlights of southbound cars over the barrier," she says. Spears says the highway feels less safe now than before.

Finding a solution for Strachan Point residents is just one responsibility for site project director Rob Ahola. As the engineer representing the province, Ahola is the go-to guy. He oversees the Kiewit contract – making sure what should get done does get done, like investigating if a median is obstructing left-turning motorists, before giving Kiewit the go-ahead for the next phase. He says an island will shortly replace barriers that obstruct sight lines for motorists trying to turn left at Ocean Point.

A civil engineer who got his start repairing CN Rail bridges when he was 16, Ahola says the Sea to Sky construction project is the most challenging he’s ever encountered. With Howe Sound and the rail line on one side and bulky rock faces on the other, geography means construction crews have limited room in which to manage traffic.

"We’ve straightened out a lot of corners but it’s not a straight highway," Ahola says and maintains that’s a good thing. He says curves force drivers to pay attention and replacing substandard passing lanes – some that end dangerously on curves – will allow drivers more flexibility when they know an opportunity to pass is just ahead.

Heading back to Brunswick Pit with a full load, a motorist that can’t wait for a passing lane veers around the rock truck that Tia Alexandria is driving. Although she does slow at merges to allow vehicles to pass, she’s always amazed at how fast and what risks drivers will take, like trying to pass on the right-hand side, to get around her. She wonders out loud what will be the reality of a straighter highway?

"It’s got that freeway vibe. It’s got the four lanes and people are pretty excited about being able to go a little faster – it’s something."

McArthur puts it another way.

"You live way out in the ‘burbs to take advantage of the available recreational activities, plus maybe lower taxation, and yet you want to have all these amenities that will speed you back into a working situation. What’s the bloody hurry?"