The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure continues to move forward with highway improvement projects as part of the eventual expansion to four lanes of Highways 2 and 97 North, though no definitive timeline and budget has been announced for that ambitious project.
The Ministry announced on Friday contracts have been awarded for construction of a two-kilometre northbound passing lane on Highway 97 about 15 kilometres north of Dawson Creek, and for a 2.8-kilometre southbound climbing lane on Highway 2 just south of Pouce Coupe, among other intersection improvements in those areas. That work is in addition to a nearly-four-kilometre stretch of Highway 2 in the Tomslake/Tupper area that will be expanded to four lanes, as well as the stretch of Highway 2 between the Snake Pit Road and 8 Street in Dawson Creek.
Both highways have been subject to increased traffic flows and a resulting increase in highway collisions and fatalities, and Minister Blair Lekstrom said the passing lanes are specifically designed with the aim of increased safety while the rest of the highways expansion continues.
“Anytime you can actually give people the opportunity, if they are trying to get by slower moving traffic, to do it with a passing lane versus on a two-lane highway, having to go out into oncoming traffic, obviously improves safety,” said the Minister and MLA for Peace River South.
“Those turning lanes and passing lanes will be designed in a way that will fit in with the twinning,” he added.
Those projects have not been without controversy, however. The expansion on Highway 97 near the Farmington store originally meant the store would be accessed through a frontage road, which local residents said would kill the business. The Ministry came back with a plan for a left-turn lane for northbound traffic instead, which was met with much more agreement from those residents, though the store owner still had concerns about large truck traffic being able to enter and exit the store’s parking lot with the new proposal.
“We’re working with the store owner on that now to make sure that trucks can get in and out of there,” said Lekstrom. “Traditionally, that would fall to the store owner, but we’ve made a commitment that we will work with him and we have some options we think will meet his needs.”
The cost of that alternative is higher than the original budget for that project, but he said the new proposal will be fully funded to meet all of the engineering and safety standards required.
The expansion on Highway 2 requires the construction of a new bridge over Tupper Creek, which raised the concern of the Swan Lake Enhancement Society about potential damage to the fish-bearing watercourses feeding that lake. The Society noted in a letter to the Peace River Regional District that in the past, the Ministry implemented changes to bridges and roads in the area with very little consultation done. Members of the Swan Lake Enhancement Society could not be reached for comment before press time, but Lekstrom said that work will be completed ensuring every effort is made to maintain fish passage through those affected watercourses.
“All of that is being considered, definitely,” he said. “The environmental standards when we look at our road works, it’s pretty incredible when you look at what has to be taken into consideration when it comes to streams, rivers and creeks. I don’t think there will be any concerns there.”
There are still several more years of work anticipated before the overall expansion of the highways is completed. However, on perhaps the most difficult aspect of the project, the expansion of Highway 97 at the South Taylor Hill, he said he anticipates being able to announce the details of that project within a few weeks.
There is still much work to be done in regards to how the Ministry proposes to expand Highway 2 either through or around Pouce Coupe, but Lekstrom said that decision will not be made in the near future and not without extensive consultation.
“I expect that’s a number of years out, that part of it,” he said. “As we move forward on that, there will not be an arbitrary decision made by the Ministry, it will be through discussion with the Village of Pouce Coupe.”
There have been concerns expressed by residents of the region about increased incidents of speeding with the expansion of the highways, and the Minister said while he is in ongoing discussions with the RCMP about highway enforcement, he could not commit to announcing an increased police presence on those highways as a result of the expansion.
The highway expansion and intersection improvements are part of a broader, $54-million capital plan for highways and side roads in the South Peace that Lekstrom announced earlier this year.
“This is the single largest amount we have ever spent in Peace River South,” he said. “I know all my life roads have been an issue, and we hear that we don’t get enough invested from Victoria, but there is probably no other region that has received for our road infrastructure spending than in both the Peace River South and Peace River North.”