Squamish could become a transportation hub linking the Sunshine Coast to the Lower Mainland without ferries.
The provincial government has announced it will issue a Request For Proposals (RFP) this fall to study bridge and highway options to the coast. It's a discussion that's long been in the works for residents on the coast.
"Having some facts on the table, or some information to inform the discussion, is worthwhile," said local MLA Jordan Sturdy. "Because it's been speculation left, right and centre forever. So let's really look at it. Let's see if it's practical."
Sturdy said he is not prejudging any of the options at this time. Those include linking key Howe Sound islands via bridges, or going overland from Squamish to Gibsons in the lower Sunshine Coast, or from Squamish to Powell River in the upper Sunshine Coast.
The study will contrast these options with the existing ferry service.
This is welcome news to the president of the Third Crossing Society, based in Powell River.
"We're obviously pleased about it," said Gary Fribance. "Our organization has been campaigning for a road for a long time."
Powell River, he added, is one of the most isolated communities in the province.
The Third Crossing Society has been promoting a 173-kilometre backcountry link from Powell River to just north of Squamish for the better part of the last decade. The route would follow existing logging roads for the most part, but also include some sections of new road and a three-kilometre tunnel through Casement Mountain. It would wind north above Jervis Inlet.
Ultimately the road would link Highway 99 in the east and Highway 101 on the coast on a journey that would take less than three hours from the coast to corridor. The society's estimates put the cost between $500 and $600 million.
The Third Crossing route, however, is just one of the options to be studied this fall.
There is another proposed route that would connect Squamish to Sechelt in the lower Sunshine Coast using mostly Forest Service roads. Sturdy said he has heard of people biking this route.
And yet another option calls for a highway hugging the coastline.
"It's at a very high level," said Sturdy of the provincial study.
"The objective is to see if any of the results suggest additional work should be considered."
Sturdy recognizes that if any route was developed it will have a social, environmental and a fiscal impact on local communities and the province as a whole.
He added: "If Squamish was to become more of a hub that was connecting the Sunshine Coast to the Lower Mainland then that would clearly have some impact, on Squamish itself as well as on our transportation options."
Squamish Mayor Patricia Heintzman, speaking from UBCM this week, said it would be interesting to see what comes of the RFP, given all the things to consider.
"(The Squamish option) brings a lot of opportunities and challenges, for sure," she said, adding that it would still be a long drive to the Sunshine Coast.
"The Sea to Sky Highway already has pinch points and some capacity issues particularly on weekends and the Sunday afternoon exodus, so they would have to augment existing infrastructure on that Sea to Sky Highway.
"At a superficial glance it seems the existing ferry system is the best but... you never know."
The province is set to issue the RFP this fall and the report is due back in 2016.
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