Landing the 2010 Winter Olympic Games hinges on a four-lane Vancouver-Whistler road link. Three lanes won't do, and the multi-modal alternatives contemplated would be a complement but hardly a substitute. Domestic considerations (e.g. Whistler traffic, Squamish-Lillooet regional development, and another route to the Interior) already make such a highway overdue.
The principal challenge in upgrading Highway 99 is its 32 km Horseshoe Bay Britannia Beach section. Pinched between the mountains and the ocean, this stretch remains essentially a slow, winding, undivided, two-lane road. Conventional options to pop this bottleneck open are few, ugly and expensive. But we could have an inexpensive four-lane, divided highway through the Howe Sound corridor if we apply the basic principle of SkyTrain: when the going gets tough, elevate. Just as elevated tracks let SkyTrain glide above and around ground obstacles, elevating a roadway off the ground on supporting columns would let it go just about anywhere: over rough terrain, along steep slopes, around rock bluffs, and over water.
Under this elevated option we could designate the present highway one-way northbound and have half the new highway already in place. We would only need to construct a two-lane elevated roadway (i.e. the other half of the highway) for the southbound traffic. It could run between the present highway and the BC Rail tracks where possible and swing out to over the water where needed. Thus the two halves of the new highway would run more or less parallel but apart, coming together only where the existing road bed is already wide enough for four lanes. The elevated technique could also be used at other tight spots along the Cheakamus River.
The elevated option has important economic, safety, environmental and esthetic advantages. Economically, the 27 km (my estimate) elevated roadway needed through the Howe Sound corridor could cost much less than the $1 billion estimated for a conventional upgrade featuring extensive rockwork and tunnelling. For example, building a 16 km elevated section of the train guideway for the new Millennium SkyTrain line was contracted for $209 million. Admittedly, the Millennium line was being constructed in an urban environment with good access for construction crews, equipment and material. However, Howe Sound would also have good access. Both Highway 99 and BC Rail could remain open during construction, and water access could also be utilized.
Safety would be greatly improved by doubling road capacity and dividing the highway. An elevated roadway would also be virtually free of slides and washouts.
Environmentally, the elevated option would be the green and sustainable development that environmentalists and Olympic selectors are keen on. As construction on the surface would be limited to the footprint areas of the supporting columns, the massive continuous ground disturbance associated with conventional road construction could be avoided.
Esthetically, a gracefully arching and curving roadway would complement the spectacular Howe Sound landscape. Practical elements of elevated roadways (e.g., SkyTrain, Los Angeles freeways, European mountain highways) have persuaded me that the elevated concept would be particularly well suited to the cramped confines of the Howe Sound corridor. I am convinced that a feasibility study would confirm its advantages. Elegantly practical plans and government commitment to build the elevated option could be the most seductive feature of the Olympic bid due in 2003.