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Sea to Sky upgrade delays less than Culliton Creek

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The $600 million highway upgrades will cause less highway delays and traffic interruptions than the current Culliton Creek project, according to officials with the provincial Ministry of Transportation

"The closure and delay pattern will be far, far less than Culliton," said Peter Milburn, the Ministry of Transportation’s director for the Sea to Sky project at public the open house last week at Millennium Place.

He later added that closures for the Culliton project, which began last spring with extensive day and night closures, are the most extensive of any provincial highway project on the books.

"The Culliton Creek closure regime is the biggest one on any single project so subsequent projects wouldn’t have the same type of closure regime that we had at Culliton."

Last Friday’s open house was a chance for the public to comment on the proposed Sea to Sky Highway upgrade, which is planned to start in spring 2004 and is scheduled to be finished the year before the 2010 Olympic Games. Only a handful of community members came to see what the project was all about, as well as to offer comments which will then be passed along to the Environmental Assessment Office as part of the application process.

"It’s just a major issue in the community," said Frank Savage.

Savage is a volunteer at the Olympic office and is often asked about the highway upgrades when he is working there.

"I wanted to know what’s going on," he said.

"I think what’s going on now in the Culliton Creek is a good test case. It seems to be working.

"We’ve learned to live with it."

Savage admits he doesn’t often travel on the highway and so the Culliton Creek closures haven’t had a big impact on his life.

He was one of roughly 25 people who attended the five-hour open house. In fact, there were more Ministry of Transportation representatives on hand than there were people asking questions about the project.

"I think it’s a good sign in a lot of ways that we’ve satisfied a lot of the public concerns, either through presentations to council or we’ve got these little community advisory groups and liaison committees," said Mike Lichtensteiger, project manager with the transportation division at SNC Lavalin Group.

"The big question for Whistler was impact to traffic during construction and I think it’s been fairly well demonstrated that we can achieve it just through that Culliton to Cheakamus (project)."

Traffic control however isn’t the only concern from this large-scale project, which is separate from the ongoing work at Culliton.

"I think what is important is to maintain the traffic regimes…and make sure we’re building a quality product," said Milburn.

He also stressed there were challenges with noise mitigation and well as protecting habitat in the area.

The municipality is already meeting with the Ministry of Transportation on a monthly basis to ensure the resort’s concerns are addressed within the construction model.

Among the municipality’s major concerns is that the province recognizes the uniqueness of the resort community, especially as an economic generator, but also that construction minimizes impacts to the natural environment and air quality.

Wendy Horan, president of the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment, was also at the open house.

Though she impressed by the amount of preliminary ecological due diligence done on the variety of habitat species along the highway, she said her major concern is in the next steps.

"Hopefully, the future contractors brought in to accomplish the expansion will ensure that their footprints are minimized and that the legwork accomplished by the initial surveys will be noted and respected," she said after the meeting.

"The consultants have stood by a ‘no net habitat loss’ policy but we shall see how the final economics affects this. I hope that the environment will not suffer greatly in this endeavour. We will be keeping our eyes on it."

AWARE won’t be the only group keeping up-to-date on the EAO process. A Vancouver non-profit group called Better Environmentally Sound Transportation, or BEST, has been following the development of the Sea to Sky Highway project since last fall. Though the government has conducted several impact studies, BEST says there are more alternatives to be considered.

"We think that they clearly haven’t given adequate consideration to the alternatives," said Kevin Washbrook, a consultant with BEST.

"So way before any discussion about the alignments or grade separations or all that kind of stuff, we think they haven’t looked sufficiently at supply options and demand options."

BEST argues the government should be giving more consideration to alternative transit like ferries, buses and train travel. In addition they should be looking at how to better manage the demand for travel in the corridor by implementing things like a public transit commuter service between Squamish and Whistler, as well as encouraging people to car pool or work from home.

"I think if you put all these little things together you’re going to get a more satisfactory result than if you try and just put all your eggs in one basket like a highway," said Washbrook.

BEST argues for an innovative solution that’s sustainable in the long term, as opposed to the status quo highway expansion which will inevitable lead to more cars on the highway and ultimately more highway expansion in the future.

The current upgrades include: an increase of four lanes from Horseshoe Bay to Lions Bay; two lanes from Lions Bay to Porteau Cove (the rail bed will be paved over during the Olympics to make this section three lanes); three lanes from Porteau Cove to Squamish; four lanes through urban Squamish; and three lanes from Squamish to Whistler. It’s at least a five-year project.

While the government goes through its environmental assessment process over the next six months, they will begin testing construction on a strip of highway next month.

The one kilometre test stretch near Lions Bay is in an area where a lot of rock has to be removed.

"We’re basically sort of proving out some geotechnical investigations and we’ll be able to demonstrate that it will have a very low impact on the traffic as well," said Lichtensteiger.

The upgrades in this section include a split grade alignment.

"A lot of that is looked at primarily to minimize the impacts of traffic during construction," said Lichtensteiger.

The split grade alignment will allow traffic to flow on the old roadway while construction takes place on the new roadway below. Eventually both the upper and lower routes will be open for traffic.

The work on the test section will begin in October. Primarily results are expected to be available by November and will then be a part of the EAO application. The government is hoping to have an EAO certification by February so that they can begin work on the $600 million highway upgrades in spring 2004.

The comment period will run until Oct. 17. There are several ways to add your comments to the provincial government:

• E-mail to eoainfo@gems2.gov.bc.ca or Ray.Crook@gems2.gov.bc.ca ;

• Write to Raymond Crook, PO Box 9426 Stn Prov Govt, Victoria, BC V8W 9V1;

• Phone: 1-250-356-7492;

• Fax: 1-250-387-2208.