Four years of travel delays may finally be coming to an end for West Coast residents and visitors.
The provincial government announced last week that its $54 million Kennedy Hill Safety Improvements project is over 90 per cent complete and the only highway connecting Tofino and Ucluelet to the rest of Vancouver Island is expected to fully open to two-way traffic in early 2023.
“When both lanes are open, traffic impacts will be reduced to nighttime closures and minor interruptions during the day while the contractor continues to work toward final project completion in the spring,” the announcement reads, adding that the timeline is weather dependent.
In an email to the Westerly News, Tofino chamber of commerce executive director Jen Dart cautioned that the West Coast’s winter weather can be challenging.
“I would not be terribly surprised if the winter weather means it gets pushed back a bit later than early in the new year, but we are nearing the end of the project so that is great news,” she wrote. “I think everyone is very excited to see the end of this multi-year project. The road opening to two-way traffic is a welcomed step closer to the end goal of a finished highway.”
The project and its consequential highway closures began in 2018 and flew past its initial 2020 completion timeline as well as its $38 million budget.
“As far as stress levels it’s put on me over the last few years, it’s been pretty insane,” Ryan Wackett of Westcoast Connect told the Westerly News. “It’s going to be a massive relief once that opens up to two lane traffic again.”
Westcoast Connect transports goods in and out of the West Coast with two trucks running daily over Sutton Pass and Wackett said the single-lane alternating traffic delays have added at least two hours to his drivers’ commutes.
“Obviously the cost to pay these drivers went up substantially over the last few years,” he said, adding one driver quit due to the longer hours. “I lost a really good driver because of it, so that was a heavy hit.”
Wackett recalled being frustrated early on in the project as shifting closure schedules made it nearly impossible to plan ahead.
“It’s been consistent at least in the last year and a half when they stuck to their schedules instead of switching it every two weeks. That was actually a real huge pain in the butt because I had to readjust all my pick up times multiple times in the beginning,” he said. “I was getting frustrated that they couldn’t at least keep a set schedule, they just kept changing it all the time. It was always different. Now that it’s been a set schedule, it hasn’t been too bad, but I’ll be happy for my drivers because they’ll have less of a long day.”
He added he is confident the province will follow through on its commitment to have both lanes open soon.
“I’m optimistically hopeful that it will be what they say,” he said. “It will relieve the pocket book a little bit, it will relieve the stress that’s on my drivers, which will relieve my stress.”
The project involved blasting away about 180,000 cubic metres of rock, including the removal of an overhanging rock that was believed to be hazardous to vehicles, particularly large trucks, according to the province’s announcement.
It adds that stabilization bolts were drilled into the remaining rockface, which would measure seven kilometres if laid in a straight line, retaining structures were installed on the downslope between the highway and Kennedy Lake and two cantilever structures were built to widen the road. A new rest stop is also being constructed overlooking Kennedy Lake.
“This is a major milestone of the project to upgrade the 1.5-kilometre Kennedy Hill section to a safer, more reliable road for residents, tourists and truckers,” the announcement reads.
“The road has been straightened and flattened, with better visibility, wider travel lanes and shoulders, and new roadside barriers between the highway and Kennedy Lake.”
Tofino mayor Dan Law said the frequent closures of the only road in and out of the region were painful, but he’s excited to see the finished result.
“It’s been a tough few years with the delays and the construction, there’s no doubt about it, but once it’s done it’s going to be fantastic,” Law said. “It was a treacherous piece of highway and it was an extremely tough job to do. I think everybody’s going to be happy when it’s done and safer and widened and, to top it all off, I think that rest stop is going to be spectacular and well-loved.”
He added that residents are looking forward to no longer having to navigate through the closure schedules and delays.
“Especially for people that have had to get out of town for medical reasons or any essential reasons, it’s been tough and West Coasters are tough. People adapted and I think everybody rolled with the punches knowing that in the end the result is going to be well worth it,” he said. “I think everybody can appreciate that it just had to get done and anybody can see that it was a really difficult project. I’m really happy that the Minister of Transportation put the effort in for us and I’ll be happy to be on the other side of it.”