GOLDEN, B. C. –Driving through Canada’s Rocky Mountains offers spectacular scenery that attracts visitors from around the world.
However, a majority of the route from Banff, Alta. to Golden, B. C. is a primitive, dangerous, two-lane highway, which is a challenge for any driver, let alone those with 53-ft. trailers in tow.
The Kicking Horse Canyon section of the Trans-Canada Hwy. from Golden, B. C. to Yoho National Park was originally built in the 1950s, and was primarily a narrow, winding two-lane highway with steep rock faces on one side, and a drop-off to the CP Rail main line, and the Kicking Horse River below. The area has one of the highest rock fall hazards in the province, and the accident rate was double the provincial average, at least before some up- grades have been completed by the B. C. provincial government.
Just across the provincial line, on the same Trans-Canada Hwy. in Alberta, a disastrous accident occurred near Lake Louise just a few months ago, killing three people after five semi-trucks collided in a chain reaction. The B. C. Minister of Transportation and Highways is hoping the safety record for the Kicking Horse Canyon stretch of the Trans-Canada Hwy. will improve.
“Those kinds of accidents, unfortunately, use to happen on that corridor where we have done the work,” said Kevin Falcon recently. “We still have a lot of work to do, but we’re getting there.”
The B. C. government has completed Phase 1 and Phase 2 of this 27-kilometre highway project: or nine kilometres of four-lane upgrades in non-connecting sections, as well as the replacement of the 46-year-old Yoho Bridge, and the Park Bridge, from two to four lanes. That initial project cost a total of $195 million in provincial and federal funding.
A similar provincial/federal financial partnership has recently been approved for the first half of Phase 3 at a cost of $134.5 million, which includes the construction of nine kilometres of four-lane highway, and will result in the completion of a substantial portion of the entire project, according to B. C.’s Highway’s Ministry.
“The completion of the Brake to Yoho Park segment will result in nearly 15 kilometres of new, continues four-lane, 100 km/h divided highway, covering more than half the distance in this important transportation project,” says Jeff Knight, communications manager with the department.
Also part of the first half of Phase 3 is another 3.5-km four-lane section to be constructed at the west entrance of the project, from Golden to the future “west portal,” a potential tunnel entrance at mid-section.
Design for this first half of Phase 3 is now underway, and Falcon indicates that the procurement process will begin by the end of this year and construction should begin by next year.
The project won’t come cheap at an estimated $135 million, according to Falcon.
“It will be very expensive but it will complete the work we need to do on that, in that particular corridor,” he said.
However, the final half of Phase 3 will be the most expensive by a long shot, if the province intends to proceed with plans to: build an interchange where Hwy. 95 meets the Trans-Canada Hwy. at Golden on the west side of the project; and build an extensive four-lane tunnel at mid-section.
That latter five kilometre midsection will connect the entire 27- km highway project. While funding has yet to be determined, preliminary estimates were last pegged at approximately $630 million.
“The other two sections, Avalanche Gate to Yoho Bridge (mid-section) and the Highway 95 Interchange, will require future funding agreements,” says Knight, who offers no further clues about potential four-lane tunnel plans.
Spending what is likely to be more than $800 million for highway improvement through the Kicking Horse Canyon is an economic investment according to the Ministry. B. C.’s ideal proximity to Asia Pacific trade is crucial for a buoyant economy, according to Falcon, and that is the main impetus for construction through the Kicking Horse Canyon, as well as many other transportation projects that have been planned throughout the province.
“We are the closest piece of real estate to Asia,” says Falcon. “We have the closest shipping time to North America, for goods coming from the Asia Pacific. What we have to make sure we do, is invest to make sure that B. C. will become the gateway of choice for those who are trying to get goods into North America, or from North America to Asia.”
Upgrading the Kicking Horse Canyon should also alleviate congestion, especially in high-traffic seasons.
The Ministry of Highways estimates that traffic is typically so intense along this 27-km route, that it attracts 10,000 vehicles a day in the summer months, 24% of which is heavy truck traffic.
That’s five times the provincial average, a rate expected to increase by over 50% within the next 25 years.
Winter tourism is also increasing in this area, with new ski resorts near Golden and Revelstoke, and visitors throughout the year travelling in either direction for tourism opportunities.
Despite the high cost, the Kicking Horse Canyon project is getting few critics within B. C. Norm Macdonald is a member of the Opposition New Democratic Party, yet the Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA lauds the Kicking Horse Canyon highway project.
“It’s an incredible piece of road in that it is beautiful, but very complicated to drive, especially for a truck in winter conditions, and summer too,” says Macdonald, who is based in Golden, and says previous governments had sought similar federal funding partnerships without success.
Macdonald also says the highway project has been an economic opportunity for Golden, and like many others in that community, he has several relatives and friends that worked on the project, or benefited in some peripheral way.
Next, Macdonald would like to see a Trans-Canada Hwy. upgrade go even further, from Alberta to Kamloops, B. C.
“They need a proper highway all the way.”
On the Alberta side of the Rocky Mountain corridor, twinning has been a consideration in the Banff and Lake Louise areas for quite a while, but not in neighbouring national parks. According to Christy Gustavison, a Parks Canada media and executive services officer for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks, twinning in Banff National Park has been underway since the early 1980s, as traffic volumes and safety warranted improvements.
“To date, 48 kilometres have been twinned from the (Banff) East Gate to Castle Interchange,” she says. “A further nine kilometres just east of Lake Louise is currently under construction and estimated for completion in late fall of 2008, at an estimated cost of $87 million.”
The only plans for further twinning within Banff National Park, is the completion of a remaining 22-km distance, which is estimated to cost about $250 million if undertaken within the next three years, adds Gustavison.
“There are currently no plans to twin the 100 kilometres of Trans-Canada Hwy. within Yoho, Glacier and Mt. Revelstoke National Parks, nor the 78 kilometres of Hwy. 16 in Jasper National Park,” she says of a project that is the full responsibility of the federal government, due to its Parks Canada status.
Gustavison confirms that the twinning project though the national park has resulted in increased safety for humans and animals, along the Trans-Canada Hwy.
“Vehicle collisions and wildlife mortality have been reduced in the twinned portion between Banff East Gate and Castle Junction, completed in late 80s and 90s, and similar safety improvements are envisaged upon completion of twinning in Banff National Park,” she says.
According to Parks Canada, the twinning project is intended to offer many benefits, such as: improved motorist safety; reduced highway-related wildlife mortality and habitat fragmentation; and reduced economic bottlenecks by improving traffic flow.
Otherwise, the Trans
-Canada Hwy. near Lake Louise averages over 14,000 vehicles per day during the summer – 16% of which are transport trucks. The traffic volume is currently growing by 2% per year.
Transportation hazards on the Lake Louise stretch of the Trans-Canada Hwy. have not been ignored by the Alberta media.
After the Lake Louise tragedy in January, the Calgary Herald reported on five other accidents that occurred in the past six years, and noted that three of these recent tragedies involved one or more transport trucks.
That’s not including the recent Lake Louise tragedy, a five-semi collision.
The five previous Lake Louise highway accidents occurred from July 2002 to Dec. 2007. In the most recent, previous to the five-semitrailer collision in January, a man died in a head-on collision on the Trans-Canada Hwy., 10 km east of Lake Louise, when the eastbound van he was driving crossed into the westbound lane and collided with an SUV (Dec. 24, 2007).
Two Calgarians were killed when the jeep they were riding in lost control on an icy Trans-Canada Hwy. east of Lake Louise, and crossed into the path of a tractortrailer (Jan. 7, 2007).
A B. C. woman died on an icy stretch of the Trans-Canada Hwy. west of Lake Louise, after the woman’s westbound car lost control and was struck by a westbound truck before hitting the guard rail on the opposite side of the highway. The car was then hit by an eastbound truck. (December 2004).
A Seattle couple was killed when their tandem bike was hit by a truck on the Trans-Canada Hwy., west of Lake Louise (July 2003). Three co-workers from the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, died in a head-on crash three kilometres east of Lake Louise (July 2002).
Residents, travellers and truckers alike, have had something to say about the hazards on the highway, according to the Calgary Herald’s recent coverage: “It sucks living near this stretch of road,” said Brent Baskott, who lives in Field,
B. C. and works in Lake Louise.
“Every day something scary happens with a trucker while we’re driving on that road. They get so close to the back of your truck; you can just see the headlights and grille. Everybody wants to see that road twinned. It would also be safer if police slowed them down.”
In another report from the Calgary Herald, truckers expressed their own concerns over the Lake Louise stretch of highway, labeling it dangerous.
“Going east-to-west: you’ve been on four lanes all the way from Saskatchewan, and to suddenly get shut down to two; drivers can get a bit mesmerized,” Ontario-based trucker Brian Smith said. “There’s so much traffic through there. You have to be alert all the time.”