Stakeholders put heads together over highway 

Municipality wants feedback as soon as possible

The municipality is making sure Whistler has its say on the future of transportation in the corridor.

Key area stakeholders met at municipal hall Monday and have agreed to study the impact of major road closures on Highway 99 during an upgrade of the highway, among other transportation issues.

The first meeting brought together about a dozen key players including the Ministry of Transportation, Whistler-Blackcomb, the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, the RCMP, and Tourism Whistler.

"They’re heading a process to ensure that the impact evaluation is done and different parties and stakeholders in Whistler and the corridor contribute more information to that impact," said Brent Leigh, president of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, who was at Monday’s meeting.

The Ministry of Transportation is heading up the study but the municipality is expediting the process due to concern over the tight timeline. The ministry would like to have a final decision on upgrading the highway by late fall, to support the Vancouver 2010 Olympic bid.

The municipality and the ministry would like to make sure that the public has a voice in the process.

"From my perspective, the ministry of highways is very interested in getting feedback from the community and the community stakeholders began to discuss what information they need to bring together to evaluate the impact," said Dr. Stephen Milstein, chair of Healthy Communities, another stakeholder at the meeting.

"Everybody is aware, including the ministry, that this is a really difficult situation."

The Ministry of Transportation has released three main options for the future of Highway 99 between Horseshoe Bay and Whistler. Those range from $400 million worth of safety improvements to a $1.8 billion four-lane freeway.

Estimates on construction forecast closures on the highway for four years, for eight hours during the night and four hours during the day. The closures would take place over four days each week, during three seasons each year.

After the ministry’s presentation to Whistler council just over two weeks ago, staff immediately set out to begin a process of gauging public reaction and figuring out the potential impact that these closures could have on the community.

"What I think the RMOW did, and certainly kudos to them, is that they didn’t make the assumption that the ministry would necessarily undertake that work or that the ministry had all the information to undertake that work," said Leigh.

The ministry always intended to engage the public in a consultation process but council spearheaded the recent action.

"We’re going to work locally," said Mayor Hugh O’Reilly.

"We’re going to work regionally. We’re going to work closely with the ministry and try and respond as quickly as we can to figure out how we can impact the proposal so that it meets everyone’s need as best as possible."

From Monday’s meeting Milstein got the sense that the ministry has not decided on any one option and is waiting for more information to flow from the consultation process.

Local residents will get their say in the process too, said Diana Waltmann, information officer with the municipality.

"The public can expect to see further information shortly on all the options," she said.

Meanwhile, as the details of the Highway 99 options filter out to the local community, the provincial government developed new legislation to encourage public-private partnerships to improve B.C.’s transportation infrastructure.

"In planning for future projects, we want to make the most of our transportation resources and encourage innovative new approaches to building highways," said Judith Reid, minister of transportation.

The public-private opportunities, known as P3s, will allow private investors to build, operate and maintain provincial highways. In return, they would charge user fees, typically tolls. However, other options, such as development rights, could also be part of a private company’s return for building a highway.

"As we promised in the throne speech, our government is actively pursuing P3 opportunities to spur more private-sector investment in transportation," said Reid.

"(The) legislation provides a statutory framework for the ministry to develop these arrangement."

Local councillors have stated that a toll road on the Sea to Sky could devastate communities in the corridor.

"It’s wrong," said Squamish Mayor Corinne Lonsdale, in a previous interview with Pique Newsmagazine .

"There should be no toll when it’s our only access."

The transportation investment act, which discusses P3s, has been introduced to allow public consultation and will be debated in the fall.

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