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$8-million upgrade for Malahat highway is not enough, critics say

Work is set to begin soon on the latest Malahat Highway improvements, but safety advocates say far more is required as serious crashes continue and the Island’s population grows.
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A sign at the start of the Malahat Highway, near Goldstream Provincial Park, warns drivers of road work.

Work is set to begin soon on the latest Malahat Highway improvements, but safety advocates say far more is required as serious crashes continue and the Island’s population grows.

The Ministry of Transportation has issued a tender call that closes Jan. 30 for $8 million worth of upgrades to Highway 1.

New lanes, medians in certain spots, better lighting and improved signs are planned for the winding, hilly roadway.

Since 2001, $9.7 million has been spent on improvements to the highway.

But Malahat Fire Rescue Chief Rob Patterson, who has attended fatal and serious accidents over the years with fellow first responders, said more needs to be done. Patterson is calling for medians and two lanes running each way for the full length of the Malahat, where there have been at least 14 fatal crashes in the past 12 years.

“What I’m trying to eliminate is the [lane] crossovers, because the horrific impacts and the devastating damage to human life and suffering is incredible,” he said.

While crashes are inevitable, dividers would help make them less deadly, Patterson said. “I would dearly love to work with the Ministry of Transportation and get this straightened out.”

B.C.’s Transportation Minister Mary Polak said that she would consider further improvements to the Malahat after a crash just south of the summit last month. In that collision, both vehicles were extensively damaged but injuries weren’t life-threatening. Polak ordered an engineering and design review of the section near Whittier Road, where it narrows to one lane from two in both directions.

In October, three Nanaimo women died in a crash on the Malahat.

Former transportation minister Blair Lekstrom said last spring that widening the road to allow more concrete barriers would result in “very significant costs.”

But Patterson said more money would have to be spent to make the highway safer.

Chris Foord, co-chairman of the Capital Regional District’s traffic safety commission, called the planned upgrades “most welcome improvements,” but said they wouldn’t be enough in the long term.

“I do not believe that the Malahat, as we know it, is going to be sufficient to handle a growing population as the Island approaches one million residents,” he said.

“It is pointless having a 200-kilometre divided Island Highway that connects to basically two Bailey bridges [pre-fabricated truss bridges] to get through Goldstream Park. Not good enough.”

A new route should be considered to increase the highway’s capacity for the next 50 years, improve safety and better protect the park, Foord said.

“It may well mean a new road going through both the park and the watershed. We might as well fight those battles from now.”

This year’s package of improvements includes:

• New acceleration and deceleration lanes at Malahat Village, where improved signs and retaining walls are also going in, according to a document from the ministry.

• Between Tunnel Hill and Aspen Road, the median will be extended by 600 metres at its south end. At the north end, the highway will be widened and another 600 metres of median will be installed. New lighting will also be installed.

• The highway south of Shawnigan Lake Road will be widened and a one-kilometre-long median will be added. Lighting will be upgraded at the intersection, and the left-turn lane will be extended. At Shawnigan Lake Road itself, a southbound acceleration lane will be built.

• Finlayson Arm Road will see the addition of a flashing beacon and lighting, and a northbound acceleration lane will be constructed.

• North of West Shore Parkway, drivers will get a left-turn opportunity from the group-camping access south onto the highway, the road will be widened and a 400-metre guardrail will be installed.

Also planned is another 500 metres of guardrail to eventually be installed on the highway at Leigh Road, as part of the current Leigh Road interchange project.

Malahat improvements already completed include a 1.4-kilometre-long median north of Finlayson Arm Road, and another one-kilometre median from Tunnel Hill to Aspen Road.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com