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UPDATED: Plans for Revelstoke Trans-Canada Highway upgrade due in 'weeks'

Transportation Minister Mary Polak fields questions from an audience of about 40 at the Regent Inn on Feb. 5. She
Transportation Minister Mary Polak fields questions from an audience of about 40 at the Regent Inn on Feb. 5. She's joined by Doug Clovechok, the BC Liberals candidate for Columbia River—Revelstoke.
— image credit: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke TImes Review

B.C. Transportation Minister Mary Polak said draft plans for the Trans-Canada Highway upgrades and changes through Revelstoke will be made public in a matter of weeks. The plans will then proceed to a consultation process involving the city and the public.

Polak revealed the news in an interview in Revelstoke with the Times Review on Feb. 5. The transportation minister was in town on government business and also attended a local BC Liberals meeting that evening at the Regent Inn. She talked about Trans-Canada Highway upgrades in the region, highways maintenance and other ministry initiatives with an audience of about 40.

She also lent support to Doug Clovechok, the BC Liberals candidate for Columbia River—Revelstoke.

At the September, 2012, Union of British Columbia Municipalities meeting, premier Christy Clark and minister Polak unveiled a $509-million provincial funding pledge for work on the Trans-Canada between Kamloops and the Alberta border, including a longer-term plan to four-lane the entire stretch. The funding depended on a similar federal funding commitment.

We asked if progress had been made with the federal government. She said talks have been going "quite well" but no commitments had been secured.

Signs announcing future constructions plans will go up soon, signalling the start of a consultation process. Polak said consultations would lead to firmer, more specific initiatives that could then be put forth for federal funding consideration.

"As we move toward more of the design phase, then we'll continue talks with the federal government around what their participation will be," Polak told the Times Review. "It's a project that they have the vision for too, so I don't anticipate any difficulties with that."

She said the ministry hadn't heard any numbers from the federal government, and didn't expect to until the project was further developed. "What they need to go forward with is more detail," she said. "You don't want to go out with plans that are never going to take off."

One section of the highway up for new construction is the stretch through Revelstoke itself. The Times Review learned in early 2012 that the transportation ministry had forwarded an early draft plan for changes, but it had received a tepid response from the city.

The Times Review has requested a draft plan of the proposed highway route through Revelstoke from both the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and the City of Revelstoke, but has been denied by both.

In a Feb. 5 email, a ministry spokesperson said there are "some outstanding land issues" with the plan that are preventing public presentation at this point.

Polak said the ministry was "weeks" away from unveiling the early proposal for public comment and consultation.

"We plan to move ahead as quickly as we can," she said. "It has to interact well with the local community. When we get to the consultation, there will gradually be more and more specific information out there because we actually want people to be commenting on the plans that we have and be able to give us some feedback."

What about Revelstoke's need to attract tourists from the highway into town? Will the highway make it easier for motorists to drive past without stopping?

Polak said keeping commercial traffic moving was always a priority.

"We're going to try very hard to keep traffic flowing as best we can, but in terms of how the road is cited and what our plans are, we get that there are huge tourism advantages for Revelstoke when people are coming through and we wouldn't want to disrupt that in any way.  That's where talking with the local government but also hearing from people in the community is going to be really important because folks here understand way better than we do what it is we need to do in constructing the road to make sure that we're not negatively impacting on Revelstoke."

While in the region, Polak toured ministry operations and met with senior staff.

I asked if the commitment to four-laning the entire stretch was still on the table, given the geographic challenges, such as Three Valley Gap.

"I haven't heard from my staff concerns that it's not possible," she said.

Polak said she heard options today from staff about ways to engineer a solution to Three Valley Gap. "This is going to be a challenge, but I'm not hearing that it's impossible. I think it's a matter of exploring what options there are."

Of course, she said it would depend on federal funding. "When we get closer to some dollar amounts, then we can start talking about how that partnership can get shared."

Polak said the ministry was studying European models of avalanche control and had consulted locally about installing more remote avalanche controls in the Three Valley Gap area. This could avert delays associated with the helicopter-based control, such as limitations on flying in bad weather and in the dark.

She said the ministry was exploring "two or three" different remote systems. "Along with that goes the technology that better allows you to predict what happens on the mountain," she said.

At the meeting at the Regent Inn, Polak fielded questions from a crowd of about 40 people, including many local BC Liberal supporters.

Revelstoke businessperson Brett Renaud criticized the state of highway maintenance, saying it has deteriorated. "It can't keep going the way it is. There's just not enough equipment, there's not enough guys out there," he said. "We can't go 10 [more] years the way it is, with the status quo."

Polak said highways maintenance was privatized in 1988. She encouraged residents to complain about issues so the ministry could follow up. "We want to hear about it when you're seeing things go on when it shouldn't, or you're seeing people not on the road when they should be," she said.

Polak added the ministry had introduced new, longer-term contracts for maintenance providers that enabled them to finance the purchase of larger, more efficient equipment.

Columbia River—Revelstoke BC Liberal candidate Doug Clovechok attended the event, and agreed with Renaud that highways maintenance had deteriorated. "We hear that everywhere," Clovechok said. "I live in the Columbia Valley and that service is nowhere near where it used to be." He blamed Columbia River—Revelstoke MLA — a member of the opposition — for the maintenance problems. "On the self-serving side, if you had an MLA that cared about you, then I would do something about that," Clovechok said.

Reaction from Columbia River—Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald

MLA Norm Macdonald said the announcement of new highways project signage was nothing but a pre-election ploy, something the government had done prior to the last election.

"They put the signs up before the 2009 election. I don't think there's any point in putting up more signs. The trigger for many of the bigger projects is going to be federal participation," Macdonald said.

He didn't buy the concept that the signs were part of a new style of public consultation. "It's just pre-election. It's the same as when they put up the signs in 2009. I think that the people in Revelstoke would see it for what it is. I don't think there's any purpose in raising expectations. Make an announcement when you have something to announce. To announce a process is kind of ridiculous. It's what [the BC Liberals are] doing across the province."

Macdonald said the NDP is committed to fund Trans-Canada projects if federal matching funds are available. "There's no question. Any of the projects that the federal government is willing to do," he said.

Macdonald agreed about issues with highway maintenance. "There's no question there's trouble with the contracts, the way they're set up," he said. He attributed the causes of maintenance woes to tight funding. He also said the contracts virtually guarantee bonuses to contractors regardless of performance.

***

This story was published at 1:11 a.m. on Feb. 6 and updated with the 'Reaction from Columbia River—Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald' section at about 11:20 a.m.

 

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