Construction on Hwy. 4 will not wrap up by its initial summer completion date.
B.C.’s ministry of transportation and infrastructure announced last week that the Kennedy Hill Safety Improvements Project is 60 per cent complete, but “a variety of factors” have brought delays and pushed the anticipated summer wrap up out of reach. A new timeline has not been finalized.
The project began in 2018 in an effort to improve commuter safety along a roughly 1.5-kilometre stretch of the road linking Tofino and Ucluelet with the rest of the Island. A $38.1 million budget was initially announced, with the cost being split between the provincial and federal governments.
“It is too soon to say what effect further delays will have on the project budget,” a spokesperson for the ministry of transportation and infrastructure told the Westerly News on Monday.
The ministry’s announcement cited “the fast-evolving COVID-19 pandemic,” complex rock blasting and a January blasting accident that destroyed a portion of the roadway, as reasons for the delay.
“Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was anticipated that final paving would take place in fall 2020, with completion in this coming winter due to the necessary blasting and repair work,” the announcement reads. “However, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure acknowledges the possibility of more delays as a result of the developing situation with COVID-19. The ministry and the contractor are committed to working together to mitigate any schedule delays.”
The spokesperson added that further delays were brought by unexpected environmental factors.
“Increased environmental protections were established for a small tributary stream that was initially identified as non-fish bearing at the onset of construction. It has since been protected as fish-bearing. Other small drainage sites were identified where further restorative planting and settlement pond containments were established to maintain runoff water quality,” they said.
Ucluelet mayor Mayco Noel said the ministry’s announcement came as “no surprise,” though he noted he had been skeptical of the summer completion date prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It doesn’t change how I feel about the project. It’s going to be a great asset for the West Coast. But, hiding behind the lens of Covid-19 as a reason for the delay, we all know that’s probably a bit of a stretch of the truth….They weren’t going to have the thing completed,” he said.
Noel added that his persistent call for better communication from the ministry to the West Coast’s local governments have yielded “zero” improvement.
“If anything, it’s going in the other direction. The communication coming from the ministry is becoming less…We get our updates from Facebook just like everybody else now,” he said. “It’s a little bit disrespectful to the West Coast…Updating the municipalities and the Indigenous communities on Facebook, as far as I’m concerned, is not adequate dialogue or engagement.”
He suggested the project started off with strong public engagement and opportunities for input, but that dialogue has vanished.
“We’re treated like a bit of a mushroom. We’re not even consulted on the new schedules that they’ve presented,” he said. “The municipalities as well as the indigenous communities have zero consultation or input regarding what happens there.”
The ministry spokesperson said the ministry has been keeping local governments up to date on the project through emails and phone calls as soon as that information is confirmed with the contractor.
“In addition to updates from the ministry, the contractor is also providing regular updates of schedule changes as a result of COVID-19 impacts,” they said. “The ministry has been asked to provide a virtual presentation update to Tofino Council on April 14 and intends to continue to keep west coast communities apprised of any further changes, as they develop.”
They added that public health and worker safety are top priorities for provincial government during the COVID-19 pandemic and noted the ministry’s contractor, Emil Anderson Construction, recently mandated a 14-day isolation period for employees following international travel.
“This has impacted daily operations. The contractor expects to ramp up its blasting operations in the coming days as crew members return to work,” the spokesperson said.
The ministry’s announcement suggested construction at the Kennedy Hill site has been “particularly complex” and adjustments have been made to the original plan, including a roughly 130,000 cubic metre reduction in the amount of rock and earth expected to be removed and the addition of three cantilever bridge structures.
“Blasting on site continues to be the key activity. Once the rock bluffs have been lowered to highway grade in the next few months, the contractor will be able to shorten highway closures. This will improve access for residents and visitors,” the announcement reads.
“The Highway 4 Kennedy Hill Safety Improvement Project will create a safer and more reliable connection between Port Alberni and the west coast of Vancouver Island. The ministry thanks area residents and other people who rely on the highway for their patience and understanding during construction and the changing schedule.”