British Columbia

B.C. should aim to clear Sea-to-Sky Highway closures in 90 minutes: report

A serious collision can close the Sea-to-Sky Highway for hours. One particularly bad crash on an icy November day in 2013 meant no traffic could get through for more than nine hours.

Whistler mayor says road maintenance contractors could face penalties for longer closures

There were 396 unplanned road closures along the Sea-to-Sky Highway between April 2011 and April 2016. (Janet Carswell/Bozocup Ski/Twitter)

A serious collision can close the Sea-to-Sky Highway for hours. One particularly bad crash on an icy November day in 2013 meant no traffic could get through for more than nine hours.

But what if the highway was almost never fully closed for more than 90 minutes?

That could be the official goal for Highway 99 if the province approves recommendations outlined in a new report from Creative Transportation Solutions presented to Whistler village council last week. 

The report will be presented to the Ministry of Transportation for review.

Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said that when the road is closed, it affects every community in the region.

"When Highway 99 is closed, of course it's the only road in and out and so there's significant economic loss, there's opportunity costs — huge inconvenience to residents and visitors alike," she said.

Highway 99 was closed in both directions after a 2015 bus crash. (Alison Broddle)

Current system 'out of date'

Addressing those closures requires a considerable overhaul of the existing system, according to the consultants, who called the current protocol "out of date."

The recommended 90-minute guideline for reopening at least one lane of highway to traffic is based on the standard set by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.

"If the road's closed for longer than that, they want to know why," Wilhelm-Morden explained.

In B.C., that could mean accountability for the contractors who maintain Highway 99.

"There would have to be not just accountability, but perhaps there would be some built-in penalty," the mayor said.

Drivers wait for the highway to reopen after a 2016 crash near Loggers Creek. (Twitter/@MacartneyTG)

An analysis of five years of traffic between Horseshoe Bay and Function Junction in Whistler found there were 396 unplanned road closures because of crashes and other traffic incidents. About 39 of those incidents between April 2011 and April 2016 resulted in the closure of all lanes.

In the worst eight cases, the entire highway was blocked off for more than two hours, but the median length of a full road closure was just under an hour.

For Wilhelm-Morden, one of the biggest barriers toward clearing crash scenes within a 90-minute time frame is that RCMP traffic incident specialists are located in Surrey, far from Whistler.

"The road stands closed while this person tries to get to the scene of the accident and that's just not acceptable. We need some of those resources closer to Highway 99," she said.

U.S. highways patrolled regularly

Many other recommendations in the report look south to Washington, Oregon and California — all states with mountainous terrain similar to the Sea-to-Sky corridor.

One of those recommendations calls for regular patrols of the highway so transportation personnel can respond more quickly to crashes and get damaged vehicles off the road.

In Washington, for example, six or seven Department of Transportation staff per shift roam the I-5 and I-90 in the northwest, helping with everything from flat tires to fender-benders.

The western states also have incident management centres allowing police and transportation officials to learn about crashes at the same time.