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Traffic congestion marks another successful Canada Day

Six thousand people attended july 1 VSO concert, RMOW estimates



Standing onstage to introduce the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO) at Whistler Olympic Plaza on Canada Day, Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden was taken aback by the sheer volume of people waiting to see the performance.

"I think last year there were three or four thousand," the mayor said afterwards.

"And I could tell myself just from being on the stage and welcoming everybody, it was remarkably busier."

The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) estimates there were 6,000 people at the VSO performance July 1. It's too soon to nail down exact occupancy numbers, but the turnout was good to see for the RMOW.

"The concert started at 8:30 p.m. and went until close to 10, so you'd have to think that most of those people were staying over that evening," Wilhelm-Morden said. "It was a tremendous success."

But there's been an oft-repeated question in recent weeks, months and years — is Whistler becoming a victim of its own success?

On July 1, traffic congestion on the Sea to Sky Highway frustrated commuters as the visitors came en masse for Canada Day.

Whistler Transit observed that traffic volumes were "exceptionally high" over the long weekend, similar to volumes seen over the Christmas or New Year's holidays, said John Barry with BC Transit communications.

"Although Whistler Transit did not receive any formal complaints, people did express their frustration to the bus operators for some of the delays," Barry wrote in an email.

"Traffic was not the only issue which was heightened over the long weekend. There were a few large, organized dance parties with many party revellers using the buses. This caused multiple challenges for the system including some overcrowding, pass ups, and fare evasion."

None of the issues, however, created problems with operational costs or scheduling, and for the most part Whistler Transit was able to maintain acceptable service levels considering the volume of people, Barry said.

But how long will that be the case?

Is there concern at the RMOW that this kind of sluggish highway movement might turn people off of the resort?

"Well, of course," the mayor said.

"No one enjoys traffic congestion and it's an issue throughout the corridor, and that's exactly why we've resurrected the Transportation Advisory Group (TAG), because we want to minimize disruption and congestion to the extent that we're capable of doing that."

In 2014, an average of 9,766 vehicles travelled from Squamish to Whistler every day, according to stats from the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) recorded at a traffic count station between Whistler and Squamish.

The highest hourly volume of 2014 occurred in August, when 1,722 vehicles crossed the counter in a single hour.

Data for 2015 is not yet available.

The TAG has been having regular meetings, with another set for next week.

"We are gathering a lot of evidence and information so that we can make some fully informed recommendations, but we're a ways away from that," the mayor said.

Meanwhile, MOTI is partnering with the RMOW on a planning study for the Sea to Sky corridor.

"The study will look at projecting development and traffic on the corridor from West Vancouver to Pemberton," ministry spokesperson Kate Mukasa wrote in an email.

"The purpose is to fully understand travel time delays as well as identifying any capacity constraints that would lead to future planning opportunities."

But that's not to say the MOTI has been idle on traffic concerns. Starting in January of this year, the ministry has made "considerable timing changes" to all traffic signals on Highway 99 through the Whistler area, Mukasa said.

"The changes significantly increased the green time available to vehicles on Highway 99, especially at peak times, and have coordinated the pedestrian activated signals to ensure consistency of flow through the areas," she said.

"Both the ministry and Whistler have been monitoring the area closely, and the intersections are performing well, even during weekend high-volume periods. We will continue to monitor the traffic lights to ensure they continue to run efficiently."

A long-term solution to Whistler's traffic woes is apparently not in the immediate future, but in the meantime, Whistler is basking in the glow of another successful Canada Day.

"I couldn't believe the parade that day, just how many people were there," Wilhelm-Morden said.

"Lots of floats, great parade, and I said to (executive assistant) Wanda Bradbury ... 'Where do all these people come from?'

"It was remarkable."