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Paved, and widened, with good intentions

The suggestion that the provincial government’s plans to upgrade the Sea to Sky highway are being driven by the needs of the 2010 Olympic bid are being doused by Peter Milburn, sort of.

The suggestion that the provincial government’s plans to upgrade the Sea to Sky highway are being driven by the needs of the 2010 Olympic bid are being doused by Peter Milburn, sort of.

Milburn works for the Ministry of Transportation, which has saddled him with the title of project director, Olympic bid.

However, his primary job right now is to outline the options for upgrading Highway 99, which he did for Whistler council Tuesday. He’s taking the same presentation to the other councils in the corridor this week.

"The decision on this highway will change the future for all communities in the corridor," Milburn said in concluding his presentation Tuesday.

It is already changing the way some Whistler councillors see the future.

Building on information in previous studies and transportation demand models, as well as new studies, Milburn showed how there really isn’t any viable alternative to the existing corridor. Surveys also show that while ferries between Vancouver and Squamish may be worth pursuing, the highway is always going to be the primary means of moving people up and down the corridor.

One new bit of information presented by Milburn was that the forecast for "routine congestion" on the highway has now been revised by five years. It may be 2012 before the highway is routinely congested, rather than the earlier prediction of 2007.

What all of the information boils down to is a three bears scenario the Ministry of Transportation is looking at for upgrading the highway.

The first bear is very expensive – $1.8 billion – and involves building a four-lane freeway, with lots of tunnels, from Horseshoe Bay to Whistler, but it would serve the corridor’s transportation needs up to and beyond 2050.

The second bear is relatively cheap – $400 million. Called the Safety and Reliability option, it would involve a number of improvements to the highway to make it safer but wouldn’t increase highway capacity, ie. no additional lanes. It’s estimated this option would serve the corridor’s needs until 2012.

The third bear feels just about right. Called the Context and Sensitivity option, even its name feels good. For an estimated $1.1 billion it would see four lanes built between Horseshoe Bay and Squamish and three lanes from Squamish to Whistler. Its lifespan is also estimated beyond 2050.

A subset of the Context and Sensitivity option proposes only three lanes be built from Horseshoe Bay to Squamish. The cost would be $1.05 billion and it would reach capacity by 2016.

Doing nothing is not an option. Milburn says the accidents on the highway are above the provincial average, both in number and severity, and the highway is less reliable than most roads of a similar class. The province has also spent $100 million on the highway in the last 10 years to keep it open.

It was about this point in Milburn’s presentation that it became clear that whatever upgrade is chosen for the highway will not be done just for Whistler’s sake or to help the Olympic bid. Councillor Ted Milner noted that traffic is forecast to increase from 11 million trips annually to 17 million, a 55 per cent increase, but Whistler is near buildout so the increase isn’t going to come here. He also questioned whether the highway capacity should be driving growth in the corridor.

Milburn replied that constraining highway capacity was one option, the second bear, but that the province is supporting development between Horseshoe Bay and Squamish, including development at Furry Creek, the Squamish university and other projects. He also noted that the Sea to Sky corridor is the fastest growing area in the province.

Mayor Hugh O’Reilly pointed out that the regional district doesn’t have a growth strategy, something Whistler has been advocating for years, and that other areas in the corridor are all in favour of growth.

And then came the kicker. Construction could affect travel to Whistler for up to four years, including all-night highway closures and mid-day closures. Councillor Nick Davies suggested the highway "solution" could have devastating impacts on local businesses and the community.

The one way that the Olympic bid does impact on the whole highway upgrade is in the timing of a decision. The province will chose one of the three bears by November, so the commitment to fixing the highway is made prior to submission of the official Olympic bid next January.

Milburn said Tuesday these are the options the government is considering right now, but added: "Getting the information (about the options) out there doesn’t describe the future. The input we receive back does."

As was suggested several years ago when the Olympic bidding process began, the Games may be a catalyst for change but decisions should be made based on the long-term needs of the province. The province and other areas of the corridor see a need for more highway capacity.

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