Premier John Horgan vowed Thursday to upgrade Bamfield Main logging road, where two UVic students died in a bus crash last week, but he did not say what changes would be made or when.
“It’s terrible that a tragedy of two lives being lost had to focus our attention on it, but I know that we’re going to be working … to try and find a way to improve that road,” Horgan said.
A Wilson’s Transportation coach bus carrying 45 University of Victoria students, two teaching assistants and the driver went off the gravel logging road and slid down an embankment between Port Alberni and Bamfield last Friday. The bus was bound for the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on Vancouver Island’s west coast.
Emma Machado, 18, and John Geerdes, 18, were pronounced dead at the scene. Three people were flown to Victoria General Hospital and more than a dozen others were injured.
Port Alberni RCMP and Transport Canada are investigating.
Bamfield Main is a gravel logging road owned in part by forestry companies. It is also used by residents and tourists travelling between Bamfield and Port Alberni.
The province provides annual funding, but the forestry companies are responsible for maintenance.
Western Forest Products owns the stretch of road where the crash happened.
“Kids travel to Port Alberni on that road every day to go to school — if that’s not enough to see action, I don’t know what is,” Horgan said.
Horgan said Transportation Minister Claire Trevena, logging companies and the Huu-ay-aht First Nations will be involved in the upgrading. He plans to meet with members of the Huu-ay-aht First Nations on Tuesday.
This week, Trevena said in a statement that ministry officials have been looking into the issue to determine whether safety improvements could be made, but “the situation is complex as this is a private, industrial road, operated and maintained by private companies for active forestry operations.”
The premier acknowledged Thursday he has been aware of problems with the road for more than two decades — even before he was elected. “I’ve been on it, several times,” Horgan said. “I’ve been to Bamfield. I know the challenges first hand. It is used by the public and we’re going to have to find a way forward.”
Concerns about the road’s safety have been raised by Port Alberni Mayor Shari Minions, who wrote to the premier in April asking for upgrades, and Huu-ay-aht Chief Councillor Robert Dennis, who has pushed for barriers, chip sealing and widening of the road.
The road was the topic of a 2008 report by B.C.’s forest safety watchdog Roger Harris, who noted “Bamfield is no longer a logging town.”
Many of Harris’s 17 recommendations were adopted. His key recommendation, however, was to redesignate resource logging-type roads — such as Bamfield Main — that have outgrown their original intent and have become multi-purpose primary and secondary roads connecting communities, typically First Nations, to public highways.
Sarah Hunter, one of the UVic students on the bus, has started a petition to pressure the government to redesignate and upgrade the road for all users. She suggested that until major fixes such as paving and widening are done, large coach buses are not appropriate on the narrow, winding road.
The petition had more than 8,000 signatures as of Thursday night.
Horgan said he will leave student trip arrangements to UVic, but did say “clearly, a bus of size is not appropriate on that road.”
UVic has said it is reviewing the circumstances of the crash and the results of the review will inform plans for a planned October trip to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre.
— With a file from The Canadian Press