Editorial: A safer drive to Tofino

A visit to Tofino or Ucluelet is one of the joys of life on the Island, but driving there means taking your life in your hands on a notorious stretch of highway: the hill beside Kennedy Lake.

The provincial and federal governments are finally — almost six decades late, but better than never — putting some money into fixing part of the road that most drivers dread. It’s a much-needed improvement that will make the road safer.

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This spring, work will begin on a $30-million project to widen a 1.5-kilometre section of Highway 4 known as Kennedy Hill, which is about 14 kilometres east of the intersection with the coastal road linking Tofino and Ucluelet. The job is expected to take two years.

Anyone who has driven the road will likely remember the stretch in question. On one side, a drop into the lake. On the other, a sheer cliff rising above the pavement, and, in one area, even overhanging the road.

That overhang is a threat to tall trucks, and the road is so narrow there that two large trucks can’t pass in opposite directions. Two paramedics were killed on the hill in 2010 when their ambulance went off the road and into the lake.

For residents who have to white-knuckle the road often, fixing that stretch can’t happen soon enough.

“These improvements are the best that could be done on that whole particular stretch of highway, from Port Alberni right through to the west coast,” said Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne.

The problem is that most of Highway 4 was originally a logging road. It’s too narrow for modern traffic, and drainage problems undermine the roadway.

The plan is to do more than just make the hill safer. It will add a pullout spot, shoulders, picnic tables and a fine view of the lake, a welcome improvement to a popular tourist highway.

Turning that vision into reality will mean moving a lot of rock. In all, 300,000 cubic metres of rock will have to be blasted and moved.

While that work will be visible, what’s underneath the blacktop is more important that what we see on the surface. With a better-engineered foundation, the highway will be less prone to bumps and hollows and erosion.

It’s a huge job and a huge amount of money for only 1.5 kilometres of roadway. That’s why widening the Malahat would be impossibly expensive. There are too many cliffs to move.

As daunting as the cost is, delaying the Kennedy Hill project would not save any money. The upgrades clearly have to be done because traffic will only swell, increasing the risk of accidents and punishing the poorly supported pavement even further.

Are there other stretches of B.C. highway that deserve attention? Certainly. But Kennedy Hill has been begging for this fix since the highway was opened in September 1959.

Residents and tourists alike will breathe easier when the work is done.

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