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B.C.'s key Coquihalla Highway reopening to all vehicle traffic after floods

VICTORIA — A key highway in British Columbia will reopen to regular vehicle traffic on Wednesday, three months after large parts of it were washed away by record rainfall.
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VICTORIA — A key highway in British Columbia will reopen to regular vehicle traffic on Wednesday, three months after large parts of it were washed away by record rainfall. 

Transportation Minister Rob Fleming called the reopening of the Coquihalla Highway a significant milestone after the devastation caused by storms, mudslides and washouts in mid-November. A state of emergency that was put in place after the flooding was also scheduled to end on Tuesday at midnight. 

"I'm very pleasantly surprised at the progress that we made," he said at a news conference Tuesday. 

"Let's put it this way. I think one of the things that really made the difference was that the level of motivation was through the roof."

However, not all regular services on the route connecting the Lower Mainland and the Interior will be immediately available, he said. Some rest areas will be closed along with electric vehicle charging stations, and only two of the highway's four lanes will be in operation. 

The highway has steep, mountainous sections and Fleming said conditions can change quickly at this time of year. 

"With severe winter weather, people should only be on the highway if their vehicle has good winter tires, a full tank of gas and they have food and water and warm winter clothes with them." 

Before truckers and intercity buses began using the route on Dec. 20, crews repaired and patched numerous sections over 130 kilometres, including seven collapsed or washed-out bridges. 

A series of atmospheric rivers streamed over the B.C. Lower Mainland and southern Interior in November, washing out major highways, flooding farms and forcing thousands of people to evacuate their homes. 

More than 300 workers using 200 pieces of equipment moved gravel, rock and other material to repair and reopen the highway to commercial vehicle traffic in 35 days, the province said in a news release. 

Fleming said weight restrictions will also be lifted from Highway 99 between Pemberton and Lillooet starting Wednesday.

"This means that larger commercial vehicles will be allowed on the highway as they were before the November storms," he said.

"This is going to be very helpful for truckers who need to move goods within the local area."

Fleming said the steep and winding terrain of the highway makes it unsuitable for heavy vehicles and it should only be used for local commercial traffic.

In the Fraser Canyon, Highway 1 has partially reopened from Kanaka Bar south of Lytton to Spences Bridge, the news release said.

The section of Highway 1 between Kanaka Bar and Hope remains closed because reconstruction work has been slowed down by weather, the release said. But crews are back on-site and the highway is expected to reopen by the end of the month.

When Highway 1 does fully reopen, drivers will face lengthy delays with additional travel times of up to two hours or more, and load lengths will be restricted to 25 metres because of construction, Fleming said.

The government doesn't have the final cost of the repairs, he said, but it estimates it will range between $170 million and $220 million.

The estimate includes all the work done to reopen highways, such as repairing bridges and roadways that were washed out, removing debris, carrying out flood mitigation work, and having enhanced winter maintenance and traffic control systems in place, he said. 

Plans to permanently rebuild damaged infrastructure, including Highway 1, Highway 8 and the Coquihalla, are underway, Fleming said. Meetings were held with representatives from construction and design firms in late November.

"We will be starting the reconstruction process as soon as conditions allow this spring," Fleming said.

"The designs will incorporate construction techniques and practices and design specifications to withstand a climate change and the impacts of extreme weather events like we've experienced in our province." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2022. 

The Canadian Press