Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Timing political, but Cariboo highway a good project

VICTORIA - It's election time. Break out the highway construction equipment.
Gordon Campbell's pre-election road show rolled into Prince George this week, and out of pretty much nowhere the Liberals unveiled a $200-million plan to begin a big upgrade of Hwy 97, the critical route from Cache Creek through the heart of the province.
Just part of the plan, the premier said. That came as a big surprise to people in Prince George, expecting a $33-million commitment to twin a highway bridge. Instead they got the downpayment on a $2-billion highway megaproject, albeit one that will unfold over decades. The first phases - $200 million over five years - barely starts the job of turning the highway into the promised 'Cariboo Connector,' a 460-km four-lane route through the Interior. About 37 kms are currently four-lane. By 2010 the government hopes to have added another 45 kms, with most of the initial work near Prince George, Quesnel, Williams Lake, 100 Mile House and Cache Creek, where congestion is a problem.
The announcement - eight days before the official election campaign starts, and the big spending stops - is obviously political.
But improving the highway, and branding it, is a good investment in the region's future. That would be valuable in any case. It's critical given the coming economic crisis, when the pine beetle wood is harvested and allowable cuts are slashed across much of the region. Economic diversification will be part of any potential solution, and improved transportation is a critical part of the puzzle.
A Progress Board report last year urged governments to make transportation improvements a priority. Communities across the province can already be brought together electronically, removing one barrier to economic development. Better transportation networks can make a large difference in removing the physical barriers, effectively moving cities hours closer to each other.
 "A key strategic consideration should be establishing a workable timeframe for improving - to the greatest extent possible - key segments of east-west and north-south highways to 'shrink the distance' between major centres and to enhance external market connectivity," said the report, written by UBC prof Michael Goldberg. Goldberg said improving the Trans-Canada Highway in the Rockies, removing Lower Mainland bottlenecks and four-laning parts of Hwy 97 should be top of the project list.
The report released by the Progress Board also suggested more tolls to pay for the roadwork, and get the projects moving more quickly.
And four years ago, that might have been in the Liberals' plans. Remember the effort to sell the Coquihalla, letting a private company collect the tolls and take over the maintenance? The cash from the deal was supposed to pay for more road improvements. The principle was that users should pay for better highways.
But people hated the idea. Their response seems to have finished off not only that privatization scheme, but also plans for other private, toll projects in the Interior.
That might be a mistake. If a toll road, or private partner, allowed much faster progress on the project the benefits might outweigh the obvious public dislike for paying directly to use highways.
There are other options for moving more quickly. Campbell said federal money could help advance the work schedule. That should include money from Ottawa intended to help deal with the pine beetle crisis. The improvements should help the region. Highway travel issues are critical across much of the province, where large distances and sometimes difficult conditions cause delays and safety issues. Travel problems cost individuals and companies money, hurt the prospects for economic growth and create conflicts between users.
And highway issues are a critical barrier to tourism development, keeping travellers away from the Cariboo and locked into the southern quarter of the province.
Sure, the timing is obviously linked to the election, and to winning seats for the Liberals.
But the Cariboo Connector makes economic sense. On with the work.
Footnote: The project makes sense; the Cariboo Connector name doesn't. The highway’s new name should be aimed at persuading tourists that a trip to Prince George - and then to Prince Rupert - should be part of their plans. The route's name should sell the region's history and beauty, and lure tourists down the road.


J S Thorne said...

While some improvements to the Cariboo Hwy are no doubt warranted the promise to 4 lane the whole thing is just plain Gordon Campbell pre-election vote buying nonsense. A reasonable promise would be to expidite four laning of short sections near the larger communities and adding extra lanes on hills. As it is the long four lane stretch south of 100 Mile House is the most lightly used four lane road in the province. Furthermore what about the roads south and east of Cache Ck? Another $5+ billion will be required to four lane them!
In general the Cariboo Highway is not that busy and is far less in need of upgrading then other highways such as the Trans Canada #1 from Kamloops east to the Alberta border, or the remaining two lane sections of hwys 1 & 19 south of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island or Hwy 97 in the Okanogan.
No doubt Mr Campbell will be able to buy [with taxpayers' money] the votes of many, but he won't buy mine.

Jim Thorne, Kitimat

PS - I travel the Cariboo Hwy at least several times each year, maybe less now with gas a $1/litre.

Anonymous said...

Well, Mr. J. S thorne!! Your obviously not on hwy 97 enought to say it is not busy!! I am on that hwy 7 to 10 times a month a let me tell you it is getting busier everyday!! Four laning is a must for the future of this province! Most importantly in and around Prince George!! Being the Crossroads of B.C's north and the incoming port in Prince Rupert, International Airport here in Prince George, I think the increase in traffic East, West, North and especially SOUTH with increase with rapid speed. these hiways are much more important to worry about then the hiways between Kamloops and Alberta!! Once again another person figuring that the province starts at the B.C/American border and ends at the north side of Hope, B.C!! And your from Kitimat, Hmmmmmmmmmm!!

Mike Hunt said...

this is a good project, but I do not like they way they 4-lane roads in BC. I was over in Alberta for the summer, and when I told them I was from williams lake, they commented on how ugly our 4-laning is.

The government should build the Cariboo connector like the Yellow head in Alberta. They do not have overpasses like the coq., but the lanes are far enough apart (sometimes a km apart), so you don't have to go across 4 lanes a once.
-This is much safer.
-It feels more like a country road than a busy 4 lane highway.
-Wind resistance is eliminated from oncoming semis.
-Then the speed limit could also be 110 km/h.
- The grass median down the middle is much more asthetically pleasing.
- It would be much easy to build any overpasses and interchanges if needed in the future.

BC is the only place I have ever been that builds 4 lanes together. Please, lets plan long term.