On a slick stretch of highway on Sunday morning, a 1997 silver Honda SUV crossed the centre line on a winding mountain road between Victoria and Nanaimo. Slamming into an oncoming pickup truck, the SUV was sheared in half, leaving one adult and two teenagers dead – and a family shattered.
The short section of the Trans-Canada known as the Malahat drive has claimed at least a dozen lives in the past six years. Each day, more than 22,000 vehicles travel the sinuous route that edges between rock bluffs on one side, and steep slopes dropping off to the Saanich Inlet on the other. The path leaves little margin for error: In 2011, the driver of a fuel tanker truck miscalculated a corner. The tanks tore open on the rockface, dumping more than 40,000 litres of diesel and gasoline into a salmon-bearing river.
The province had already spent close to $10-million in safety upgrades over the past decade but that accident prompted then-transportation minister Blair Lekstrom to announced last March another $8-million. The main goal was to install concrete barriers along some of the most dangerous sections of the Malahat, but as winter approaches, only the easiest work has been completed. Construction on the rest is still months away.
By contrast, the province spent $600-million on improving safety on the Sea to Sky highway in advance of the 2010 Olympics.
That project spanned 120 kilometres of a highway that was rated as far more dangerous.
On average, however, the Malahat sees more than double the volume of traffic between Horseshoe Bay and Whistler each day. Chelsey Dollman, an activist for traffic safety on the Malahat, said the provincial government is not doing enough for safety given the high volume of traffic along this transportation corridor.
Ms. Dollman applauded the $8-million investment last March, but now says she is disappointed about the amount of work that has been completed. “I feel anxious when I drive to Victoria – I really try not to go there.” The Duncan resident wants to see concrete dividers installed the full length of the Malahat.
Even in the current state of austerity in Victoria, there is money for other projects. On Monday, Transportation Minister Mary Polak announced $60-million to accelerate highway projects in Surrey, Langley and Delta. Premier Christy Clark could have some similar news for Vancouver Island projects when she speaks at an economic conference in Nanaimo on Tuesday.
When it comes to safety improvements on the Malahat, however, the low-hanging fruit has been picked. To fully address the safety issues raised in a recent engineer’s report, the province would have to spend as much as $200-million on road just 20 kilometres long.
John Horgan, the B.C. NDP MLA whose riding includes a portion of the Malahat, took Mr. Lekstrom on a drive this summer to point out the weaknesses in the government’s safety upgrades. The pair stopped at a point just south of where Sunday’s fatal accident occurred.
“I said, ‘This is where you need to put [the barriers] and you are not,’” Mr. Horgan recalled in an interview Monday.
“They are doing the easy stuff, not the important stuff.”
Patrick Livolsi, a senior Ministry of Transportation official, said the process that decides which projects get priority is complex. The Malahat, by provincial averages, is not that dangerous.
“There are specific areas where probably more work will be required,” he said.
Sunday’s accident took place on a portion of the highway that was not earmarked for a barrier. That could change, he said, but cautioned: “Anything beyond this is going to cost a lot more dollars.”