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One more summer of construction for delayed, over-budget West Coast highway link

Fall 2022 now the expected completion date for the $54 million Kennedy Lake improvement project
A photo of the construction work taking place around Kennedy Lake. (SUSAN QUINN / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)

By Melissa Renwick, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter HA-SHILTH-SA

The massive roadwork project improving the link between the Tofino/Ucluelet area with the rest of Vancouver Island was originally slated for completion in the summer of 2020.

That spring, the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure announced the Highway 4 Kennedy Hill Safety Improvements project end date was pushed back to the winter of 2021.

Now, it’s expected to be “substantially complete” by September 2022, with finishing touches continuing into the fall.

“A variety of factors including the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for smaller blasts due to the fractured nature of the bedrock, increased environmental protections, and the repairs to Highway 4 resulting from blasting damage at the project site in January 2020 have contributed to a new projected project completion date,” said the ministry.

The Kennedy Hill construction includes removing over 150,000 cubic metres of rock along 1.5 kilometres of narrow highway.

When a rockfall from a blast compromised the road, a significant three-day road closure followed in January 2020. The event left Tofino, Ucluelet and the surrounding First Nations communities isolated from the rest of Vancouver Island.

After the event, the Tofino Long-Beach Chamber of Commerce conducted a survey with their members.

The 18 per cent of respondents estimated their collective losses to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Tofino Long-Beach Chamber of Commerce President Laura McDonald.

“Given that this project is dealing with the only route to and from the coast, it has been very challenging for everyone living and travelling here due to regular road closures as well as extended and unforeseen road closures,” said McDonald. “This has impacted businesses and residents in a variety of ways, including increased travel time, costs and inconvenience.”

Because of the increased travel times accessing the coast, goods and services are costing more for everyone living in the impacted coastal communities, she added.

The project was put on pause for three months in the Spring of 2020 following “repeated issues with blasting operations,” said the ministry.

“The contractor was required to stop work and revisit their blasting plans before continuing to prevent unplanned and extended road closures from occurring,” the ministry said. “Because specialized worker expertise is required on this construction site, regular crews need to travel from other regions on a work shift basis. Local accommodations for the crew took time to organize and revise through the first months of the pandemic.”

The blasting of bluff faces over 50 metres high is the most challenging part of the project, which is scheduled to be complete this winter.

Beyond that, the ministry said the rest of the development is more straightforward and that further delays are not anticipated.

In May 2021, it was announced that the project budget had increased from $38.1 million to $53.96 million because of COVID-19-related delays and increased environmental protections.

The ministry completes between 300 and 400 development projects annually. Since 2017, 1,173 projects totalling over $2.5 billion in transportation improvements have been carried out across the province. Of those, 96 per cent were delivered on time and budget, said the ministry.

“The regular closures, while not ideal, are known and hopefully can be planned around,” said McDonald. “Businesses and travellers have adapted to the closure times, but we definitely look forward to the completion of this project in 2022 on schedule.”

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