The star-crossed bid to build a better highway link to the Island’s West Coast appears poised to hit another bump.
The timeline and budget for the massive, ongoing Highway 4 Kennedy Hill Safety Improvement Project are both under review.
The project was announced in 2018 and touted as a measure to make a particularly tough-to-navigate 1.5 kilometre stretch of Hwy. 4 easier and safer for motorists to maneuver through as they travel to and from Tofino and Ucluelet.
The project’s initial cost estimate was set at $38 million and was expected to be completed in the summer of 2020, but a series of rock blasting mishaps, most notably one that caused a rock slide and shut down the highway for two days in January, have brought reason to reassess.
“The costs for repairs to Highway 4 resulting from the January blasting damage are yet to be finalized by the contractor, as the repair work was completed less than two weeks ago,” a B.C. ministry of transportation and infrastructure spokesperson told the VI Free Daily. “The project is currently scheduled to complete later this summer. However, given the ongoing complexity of the work, the ministry is currently assessing this timeline in discussion with the contractor.”
The highway suffered another unexpected closure last week when a scheduled rock blast around 10 a.m. on March 4 led to a large boulder being hung on a slope, requiring scalers to dislodge it before traffic could pass under safely. The road reopened around 2:30 p.m.
Ucluelet mayor Mayco Noel expressed disappointment in what he saw as a failure on the ministry’s part to communicate last week’s closure to motorists and said poor communication in general is leaving “a sour taste in the West Coast commuters’ pallet.”
“For me, when the upset happened about 10:15 that morning and two hours later I drive past the junction and I see commuters still going towards Kennedy Hill because there’s no flagger letting motorists know that the road’s closed, as a local mayor I wonder if the ministry or the contractor is putting their best foot forward,” Noel said.
“I’m not surprised that it happened, but I’m disappointed that they only reacted after I made a phone call and brought it to their attention that they were not notifying the traveling motorists. I shouldn’t have to make that phone call…Again, it’s a lost opportunity for them to say they actually care about the traveling motorists because, as you know, actions are louder than words.”
He said the ministry should limit the amount of frustration being felt by commuters by immediately putting flaggers at the West Coast junction whenever an unexpected closure occurs to prevent drivers from travelling an additional 20 minutes towards the closure just to get stuck in a lineup.
“At least let the motorist make a decision…to go back into town, go to the aquarium, grab a sandwich, whatever,” he said. “That would minimize the impact on the traveling motorist.”
He added last Wednesday’s closure occurred during business hours, affecting common work commutes between the West Coast and Port Alberni.
“I imagine there are a countless amount of contractors that are coming up in the morning to do a quick job and go back to Port Alberni and now they’re trapped,” he said. “We’re not even talking about all these extra bills people got.
“I had two contractors working for me [on Wednesday], so I probably had to pay them both an extra $200 for travel time. I’m just one person of hundreds of locals throughout the West Coast hiring third-party people out of Port Alberni and that’s not even in the equation. We can’t be re-compensated for that and that’s one of the things that’s starting to get old for a lot of people; it’s starting to have negative impacts on our pockets because of no communication.”
Noel has consistently called on the ministry to provide quicker communication whenever a mishap occurs and said he was not surprised to hear the project’s completion date could be delayed.
“We can accept anything, it’s just about communicating to us. We’re already mid-March and there’s still no update about what the schedule is going to be. I think that we’ve been very neighbourly and patiently putting up with a lot of these inefficiencies on the communication and the inconveniences to the traveling motorist. They need to come up with some better procedures,” he said.
Noel has also been calling on the ministry to provide wireless internet in the construction zone so that commuters can relay information about unexpected closures, but said he has not been satisfied with the ministry’s response to that request to date.
“They sent me an official letter back saying they’re looking at it and this and that; it’s just more lip service and I continue to say that we deserve WiFi service there,” he said.
“Get us some WiFi; quit saying you can’t and, until something changes, all our communities on the West Coast are getting frustrated.”