Finally, Sea to Sky Highway is done

VICTORIA – They were words heard across British Columbia, and especially in the halls of a government intent on hosting the world: “It’s too far.”

Uttered in March 2003 by the head of the International Olympic Committee’s bid evaluation team, the comments were a direct rebuke of the state of the Sea to Sky Highway, and of how long it took at the time to drive between potential Olympic venues in Whistler and in Vancouver.

“You need to shorten the time, if possible,” Gerhard Heiberg said of the precarious mostly two-lane road, then often nicknamed the Highway of Death.

Coming as the Vancouver 2010 committee was making final preparations for its bid against South Korea and Austria, Heiberg’s comments appeared to confirm what Olympic boosters had been saying for months: stall on the highway and lose the Olympics.

Today, after years of construction, major work is complete on new the Sea to Sky Highway and thousands of vehicles are already plying the new route each day.

For many, the wider and safer road – including its 71 kilometers of added passing lanes and dozens of new bridges – will be a legacy of the 2010 Olympic Games, and of a province intent on cleaning house to host the world.

In many regards, that’s true.

But for a road that used to see about 300 crashes per year, the story started well before B.C.’s bid for the Games.

“This was one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in the province, and a lot of people forget that,” said Kevin Falcon, B.C.’s transportation minister from 2004 to this June.

“Initially it started out as building and fixing a highway that needed to be built up and fixed,” he added.

Falcon did not deny the role the Olympics played in the highway improvements, but said that influence was more about compressing the timeline for construction than anything else.

“There’s no question the awarding of the Olympics really galvanized us in terms of now having a real reason and a timeline to make sure it gets done,” said Falcon.

“We started out with not doing this because of the Olympics. This was something that we announced we were doing before we were awarded the Olympics. But I think the Olympics provided a real reason … to do it and get it done well,” Falcon said, reiterating the beginnings of the project had more to do with safety and reliability than with athletes and medals.

Governments in B.C. have been long been contemplating drastic improvements to the highway, with reports and recommendations on the topic tracking as far back as the mid-1980s.

The first of these reports came after a grisly stretch of deaths, including nine people killed in 1981 when a number of cars drove into a chasm in the dark at M Creek after a slide took took out the bridge.

In May 1983, a government study recommended either the widening of the highway between Vancouver and Squamish to four lanes, or the creation of a new second route.

“Increasing traffic volumes, now approaching the carrying capacity of the highway, indicate that if the route is to be kept in service as Highway 99, passing sections are required in this decade and a full four-laning in the 1990s,” the report said.

It estimated that widening the existing highway would cost $137 million, and that a new route would cost between $151 million and $200 million, depending on where it was located.

Throughout the 1980s, the Social Credit government of the day shoveled millions of dollars into projects along the highway, including debris dams, spillways and bridge repairs. At the time, the government was so convinced of the need for expansion that new bridges were built to accommodate four lanes even where the highway had only two.

But then things stalled.

Throughout the 1990s, the New Democratic Party government conducted studies, but spent very little on the highway.

Mayors from the region banded together during this time and lobbied Victoria, but to no avail.

In fact, plans remained on the shelf until about 2001, when a newly elected Liberal government came to Victoria.

Within months of winning the election, Campbell’s government released a report detailing options for the highway that ranged from a $365 million plan to one that would cost $1.34 billion.

There had been 3,300 accidents on the highway from 1996 to 2001, and 34 deaths.

“Between ’96 and 2000, there were over three dozen people who lost their lives on that road,” Campbell said in late 2002, well before Heiberg arrived in town.

“Obviously, that’s an area where we’re going to have to be investing in the next number of years, whether there’s an Olympics or not,” he added.

Officials involved in the project at the time have agreed there was significant momentum to act on the highway, but initial plans were to spread the work over about 20 years.

Then came the Olympics, which all agree to have lit a fire of urgency.

Perhaps the clearest example of the pressure being exerted came in early 2002, when the head of the Vancouver 2010 bid committee appeared at an open meeting of Campbell’s cabinet.

“Sea to Sky is a problem for us today,” Jack Poole said on Jan. 16, 2002.

“It’s unreliable, it’s unsafe. … Rocks the size of cars come down there in some of the storms we have,” Poole said, underscoring its importance to the Olympics.

“The bid really doesn’t have a chance without [improvements to the highway],” he said. “We need your help here.”

From that point on, the government appeared sold.

By June 2002, ministers were referring to the project as the “really badly needed upgrade.”

By September, Campbell was promising improvements, and within about a year and a half the request for bidders had been issued.

In the end, Falcon agreed the highway upgrades will mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but that the most important is safety.

“When you strip away all the Olympics and everything else, it will save dozens and dozens of lives,” he said.

“There will be families that will not have to go through the trauma of dealing with the death of a close family member or relative as a result of the improvements we’ve made.”

“I think that’s probably the most important legacy.”