For several months, Whistler has adapted to summer traffic that seems endless. From the May long weekend and the Canada Day long weekend delays on the Sea to Sky Highway, to the BC Bike Race blip as racers carefully crossed the busy highway, and the agonizingly choked flow for the Pemberton Music Festival.
And then Ironman — with everything from half-to full-day closures and restrictions on highways and roadways. Throw in the upcoming Wanderlust, plus the routine weekend city traffic and it is approaching resort-town gridlock.
One colleague complained the other day, "commuting sucks," as the highway maintenance between Whistler and Pemberton lengthened the usual half-hour commute. And now, more upgrades are planned for the Sea to Sky Highway for summer and fall. Among them, a $4-million asphalt resurfacing program between Whistler and Pemberton, plus a $150,000 extension of the right-turn lane at Lorimer Road. Another $500,000 for a new left-turn lane on the highway at the Whistler Heliport.
Then there is almost $700,000 to be used for a digital overhead message sign at Alice Lake, a speed-reader board and curve-warning signs in Lions Bay, and a cycling warning system for the Porteau Bluffs section of the highway. Let's hope the warnings act as deterrents to the ubiquitous speeders, but these projects will do nothing to stem the flow of traffic, which will continue to stream into Whistler.
The solution? For a start, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) and BC Transit just announced a pilot-project for free transit service on six Saturdays beginning July 30 in an effort to ease summer traffic congestion. An excellent first move.
In addition, there has been talk of commuter buses from Pemberton to Whistler, and to and from Squamish. Whistler's population is about 10,000 and approximately 15,000 people are employed here, according to the recently updated Whistler Economic Partnership Initiative Report. That's a lot of vehicles on the highway commuting to and from the resort each day. And there is the recent announcement that Whistler transit will get a boost for 2017-18 in the form of expanded service hours, followed the next year with three additional buses.
The total cost for the expansion undertaken by BC Transit and the RMOW is projected to be about $1.3 million, with the RMOW contributing about $660,000. A recent authorization by the RMOW for a transit study — in conjunction with the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District and local First Nations — will explore the possibilities for integrated transit service with an eye to strategies for the next 25 years.
It certainly seems as though increased service with commuter buses would help most right now and for the future, particularly as we are looking at this as a long-term solution. Increasingly, Whistler staff look to accommodations in Pemberton and Squamish due to the lack of housing here. Several commuter buses each day would ease the traffic, and wouldn't that be a terrific accomplishment for Whistler's sustainability? The cost of additional commuter buses would be a fraction of highway upgrades and new-lane construction, if that were even an option right now.
The argument that Whistler Blackcomb largely provides housing for its staff and is exempt from contributing to such commuter service is a weak argument at best, and goes against the spirit that we all play a role in the success of this resort. A formula for cost-sharing should be determined for this.
In addition, for the events that draw tens of thousands of people, the commuter bus service could be the model for extended — and successful — service. This year's record-breaking Pemberton Music Festival pulled in a total of 180,000 people. By this time next year, we will need answers. Immediate discussion between all the players at all levels of government, including those of Whistler, Pemberton and Squamish should be undertaken.
And finally, to their credit: Whistler locals deserve recognition and thanks — it's not easy to have your cool little world disrupted so often by visitors and traffic from elsewhere that forces you to adapt and change your routine in order to accommodate the thousands who descend upon the resort. With the proper transit decisions, this resort could make great strides toward increased sustainability while providing reliable service for us all.