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The cost of completing the final stretch of B.C’s Highway 1 upgrade in the Kicking Horse Canyon has jumped to $600-million – a $150-million increase since the budget was approved in 2016.

Part of the rising costs are because of a government-imposed project labour agreement that gives hiring priority to underrepresented workers, including women and Indigenous people.

The B.C. New Democratic Party government’s Community Benefits Agreement will add $35-million to the completion cost. The CBA gives hiring preference to groups of workers who rarely make it into the construction industry: Just 5 per cent of the work force is women, Indigenous people or other visible minorities.

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B.C. taxpayers will bear the higher cost. The federal contribution of $215-million was locked in before the province introduced the labour requirement for a string of public infrastructure investments, including the Pattullo Bridge and the Broadway subway projects.

In a technical briefing offered Thursday, senior bureaucrats who were not authorized to speak on the record explained the Highway 1 cost overruns are also because of rising costs of material, as well as a re-evaluation of the risks and complexities of this mountainous section of the Trans-Canada Highway. The highway between West Portal and Yoho Bridge, east of the town of Golden, runs along steep, unstable slopes, with the Kicking Horse River below.

The two-lane stretch of highway will be widened to four lanes, with a median barrier, wider shoulders for cyclists, and engineering to reduce rock fall and avalanche hazards.

During construction, which will begin next summer, the highway will have to be closed for weeks at a time with no local detours available.

The project stretches just 4.8 kilometres. At a cost of $125-million a kilometre, the officials said, it is likely the most expensive highway project in the province’s history.

“We have an extraordinarily difficult section of highway we are trying to work on,” Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Claire Trevena later told reporters. Officials noted it is also dangerous, with a collision rate three times higher than the average for a two-lane highway in British Columbia.

The NDP government established a new Crown corporation, B.C. Infrastructure Benefits, to oversee select public infrastructure investments. It is a partner in roughly $4.8-billion worth of initiatives to address a skilled worker shortage and the uneven representation of workers in construction.

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The Crown corporation oversees the implementation of Community Benefit Agreements, which are designed to encourage more youth to enter the trades as a career option, to get more apprentices to complete their certification and to tackle bullying and harassment.

The non-union construction industry led by the Independent Contractors and Business Association opposes the program, arguing it favours unions and will force costs up for public infrastructure.

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