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The Swiss Solution

Mark Milke: Want safer highways in BC? Try building a few more tunnels.
All clear.

Several years back I visited some friends in Switzerland and had the good fortune to join them on a train ride from Zurich to Lucerne. Over the years, I’ve travelled on a few trains including elsewhere in Europe (and Japan, where I once lived). In densely packed countries or regions, trains are a pleasant alternative not only to driving but flying, given passenger trains in such places have historically been built from the core of one city to another, saving time and hassle.

What struck me about that particular train ride was the number of tunnels, and in particular a very long one near the end of the trip. It was in November and we left a drizzly, cold Zurich, though at the exit of one particular tunnel near the end of the trip, sunshine burst forth and the temperature was about 20 degrees when we reached Lucerne.

The immediate stark comparison was of course made possible by that long tunnel. But in addition to that pleasant surprise, I observed a few other things about tunnels in Switzerland, including on major freeways and on minor roads: Unlike British Columbia or the Alberta portion of the Rockies, the Swiss have lots of them.

Bring Swiss engineering to BC?

It seems the Swiss are happy to punch more tunnels through mountains when needed for vehicles or trains, both for efficiency and also, I presume, because they are safer. Switzerland of course, like British Columbia, is mountainous with plenty of snow and winter conditions depending on the region.

Swiss tunnels came to mind again recently with the torrential flooding that swamped multiple parts of British Columbia. That included not just flat areas such as Chilliwack and Abbotsford where tunnels obviously would make no sense and no difference, but much of the provincial highway network where they might. This is especially true for the TransCanada both north of Hope and again between Sicamous and Revelstoke.

I’ve crisscrossed British Columbia’s highways for years, be it on Vancouver Island, the coast, interior and north. It’s clear they have not kept up with population growth. In some cases, especially in urban areas such as Metro Vancouver, that’s partly due to an anti-vehicle sentiment among some planners and the public.

One useful example is the Massey Tunnel, completed in 1959. It should have been replaced long ago by a bridge or another tunnel. Various announcements have been made over the years only to be stymied. The latest replacement announcement, for a tunnel, was announced by the province in August, just a handful of years after cancelling a previously-announced replacement bridge. That announcement came 62 years after a much younger Queen Elizabeth II opened Massey Tunnel.

Move beyond Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, and the lack of an updated design including tunnels becomes glaringly obvious. I attribute the neglect there in part to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind orientation. Unless you travel rural BC regularly, it’s less likely to become an issue—until floods cut off entire swaths of the antiquated highways.

Provincial populations have tripled with 1962-era highways

More specifically, consider the TransCanada north of Hope or north of Sicamous. On the latter example, the most difficult part to build was the Rogers Pass, completed in 1962. John Diefenbaker was prime minister and Pat Boone, Ray Charles, and Elvis Presley were topping the music charts.

Canada’s population in 1962 was 18.6 million, less than half of what it is today at 38 million. British Columbia’s population stood at just under 1.7 million. Less than one-third the over 5.1 million souls that now inhabit the province.

In the intervening six decades, BC’s population tripled, but few improvements have been made to the TransCanada highway. Those include the very worst part, east of Golden, though several years are left even for that stretch to be fully four-laned. I drive that highway regularly; it’s not an exaggeration to say it’s still more a goat trail than a modern highway. Before recent construction, mountain goats literally shared highway pullouts with semis and other vehicles on the east side of that highway near Golden.

However, even when that stretch is complete, much of the TransCanada in the most mountainous part of BC will still be two-laned with only the occasional short tunnel and a few snowsheds. Thus, be it in summer or winter, travelling the TransCanada and other highways is far more dangerous than they should be. Upgrading to four lanes (or six lanes east of Abbotsford) with tunnels in the most treacherous sections in rural British Columbia is a useful goal.

As for how to finance upgrades, I’m happy to recommend an end to corporate welfare which picks winners and losers among businesses. I’d also happily suggest an end to the BC government’s “community benefit agreements” which pick winners and losers among construction companies and construction trades unions and can add as much as 35 percent to a construction project costs.

Would tunnels have made any difference to travellers and trucks in the midst of the recent floods, or even during normal bad weather in fall, winter and spring? The answer for Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley is obviously “no.” The answer for some interior highways that abut cliffs, and where creeks and rivers washed out bridges, may well be “yes.”

Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.