Driving discussions about safety 

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF THE MINISTRY OF TRANSPORTATION AND INFRASTRUCTURE
  • Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure

Fall weather is upon us and that means dark, windy and rainy nights.

It's all good if you are tucked up in front of the fire reading the latest issue of Pique. But if you are making your way up the Sea to Sky Highway, it can make for a treacherous and stressful drive.

Now add in the sleet, snow and freezing rain — the most dangerous of conditions to drive in — all on their way in the coming months and it's inevitable that accidents will happen and road closures will result.

It's an accepted fact that these closures due to accidents, whether in winter — or summer, for that matter — come at a significant cost. There are the terrible personal losses from injury and death, but there are also economic costs for the resort in opportunities lost.

Goodwill is frazzled as tourists and residents alike sit in traffic snarls, which can take hours to resolve.

No one is criticizing the accident investigators who must do their work with due diligence on behalf of all those involved — but with really only one route in and out of Whistler, frustrations can bubble over when closures lasts for hours.

Along with this, we have seen higher levels of aggravated drivers this past summer due to traffic buildup entering the resort thanks to sheer volume.

This week we learned that provincial officials, along with representatives from Whistler and Squamish, met to continue talks about how travel on the Sea to Sky Highway can be improved.

Is part of the solution getting people out of their cars and into buses? Perhaps.

"Government recognizes there is room for improvement to better service this area...," Minister of Transportation Todd Stone said in a release on the meeting.

"As the population along the Sea to Sky corridor continues to increase, our transit services must keep pace."

Said Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden: "Improving transit service throughout the Sea to Sky corridor will help to reduce traffic congestion and support tourism as the region experiences growth."

In terms of ridership, Whistler already outstrips its neighbours to the north and south. According to the Sea to Sky Transit Future Plan, released in November 2015, 15 per cent of all trips made in Whistler are done on transit. In Pemberton, it's 1.5 per cent and in Squamish, it is 1.3 per cent.

By 2040, Whistler hopes to get that number up to 25 per cent and it is hoped that corridor ridership would be at five per cent by then — if corridor transit were finally in place. There is, so far, no funding attached to any of the plans to improve transit. In fact, the province put a three-year funding freeze in place in 2014 on BC Transit. Under the current funding model, BC Transit pays 50 per cent of all costs to each service, while the host municipality picks up the rest.

The plan looks at 2025 as a target for having transit between Squamish and Whistler, though transit between Squamish and Vancouver is hoped to be in place by 2020 at an estimated cost of $626,600 — but to be clear there is no funding in place for this plan either.

While most people choose to drive their vehicles on the highway, I believe there are many who would rather leave the driving to someone else — those who are commuting to work, for example, or those who don't want to deal with our fickle and sometimes challenging weather, or those who don't want to deal with the challenges of parking in or near corridor tourist hot spots — or those who don't have snow tires!

It's not a new model, after all. Millions of people around the world leave their cars at home and take public transit to work over long distances.

As part of this on-going work, the government will be hosting public forums on transportation and it has opened an online survey to gather feedback from the public — go to https://bctransit.com/seatosky to have your say.

It's been nearly a year since the Resort Municipality of Whistler started the latest Transit Advisory Group (TAG) to look at the evidence around traffic volumes, pedestrian crossings and proposed development along the corridor.

This month it posted a Request for Proposal (RFP) to gather data on highway accidents and closures.

The successful consultant is to examine where accidents on the highway have occurred over the last three to five years, review accident management on other highways to determine best practices in accident management, compare the economic losses in extended highway delays and closures and assess emergency resources available to respond to Sea to Sky Highway accidents.

The RMOW will study the findings and make recommendations to the province, but only the transportation ministry can make any changes (the RFP closes Nov.15 and the findings will be available in three to six months).

This June saw the start of the variable speed sign pilot project. It's too early to tell if the signs are impacting accident rates says the Ministry of Transportation, but anecdotally it says people are slowing down when told to by the neon signage.

As we consider transportation on the highway, now and into the future, we need to share thoughts and solutions not just on congestion, but also on safety — this includes the ongoing discussion around concrete dividing barriers on some sections of the highway.

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