Taking a look at 31 years of woes on the Coquihalla Highway

"The Coq," as it's affectionately known to many in British Columbia, has been controversial from the day it was first announced in 1984.

Provincial thoroughfare has been the most used mountain pass in B.C. since opening in 1986

The opening of B.C.'s Coquihalla Highway in 1986 brought a lot of anticipation with it — and millions of dollars in cost overruns. (CBC)

Thousands of drivers have been cursing the Coquihalla Highway the past few days as winter driving conditions left some slipping and sliding along the road, and stranded others, forcing them to sleep overnight in their cars

But angrily-waved fists of frustration are a long-standing British Columbia tradition along the 324-kilometre thoroughfare.

"The Coq," as it's affectionately known to many, has been controversial from the day politicians first announced it would be built by 1986.  

As the busiest mountain pass in B.C., the highway is prone to nasty weather, and the risk of an avalanche as well as vehicle collisions and stalls can all force it to close.

According to the Ministry of Transportation, the route starts at sea level in Hope and gains one kilometre in elevation over a 50-kilometre stretch. 

Time saver

Many saw the project positively — and continue to do so today, as it put years of scenic but at times nightmarish drives through the Interior to an end and saved travellers almost three hours of driving.

The following CBC report from 1984 shows just how excited some were.

Rumours spread that the B.C. provincial government in 1984 was planning to build a new highway to the Interior. 2:21

However, the highway quickly took on criticism before shovels even hit the ground. Taxpayers first balked when they found out there would be a toll to travel along it. 

A total of $845 million in tolls were collected in the 22 years since the highway opened until the province stopped collecting them in 2008. 

And while some communities along the route saw the highway as a blessing, others that had once been regular stops for travellers saw their business nearly come to a halt.

Budget overruns

But the biggest criticism of the highway had to do with the millions of dollars in cost overruns that came with it.

The accusations intially surfaced after the first phase of the project, from Hope to Merritt, was completed in 1986.  

The first two phases of the project were originally budgeted at $250 million, but ended up costing more than $400 million, according to archived reports at the time. 

This video shows the opening of the first phase of the project, and the criticism that came with it:

Amidst the fanfare of the opening of the first leg of the Coquihalla, some cited budget overruns. 2:43

Critics said the rush to construct the highway in time for Expo 86 had led to costly and inefficient work practices like laying asphalt on snow-covered ground — which critics said necessitated repairs shortly after the highway opened. 

At first, Bill Bennett's government denied the budget overruns, but an inquiry later revealed the rush to construct the highway. 

Critics said the province had tried to deceive the public about how much the project would cost. 

But officials at the time defended the highway and said, overall, taxpayers got a good deal on the project. 

Thousands use Coquihalla daily

Today, the Coquihalla sees upwards of 30,000 travellers per day during its busiest month, August. 

Nearly one fourth of that traffic is trucks. 

The route has been credited with kickstarting an economic boom in the Okanagan and southern Interior. 

But as hours-long closures over the last few days indicate, the highway can still be a great source of frustration for many.

The province says the highway is most often closed because of "vehicle incidents" like stalls and trucks spinning out, followed by collisions and avalanche hazards.