New highway piques regional district’s interest

The Strathcona Regional District is interested in a proposal for a new highway to connect north Vancouver Island to the Interior.

The highway, which advocates have billed as a third crossing for B.C. (Highway 1 is the First Crossing and Highway 16, from Prince Rupert to Prince George, is the province’s Second Crossing), would allow motorists to avoid major ferry terminals as well as the congested Lower Mainland.

“It’s an east to west connection which we have very few of in B.C. because of our rivers and mountains,” Fribance said during a presentation to the Strathcona Regional District board Wednesday afternoon.

The proposal involves establishing a new link between Powell River and Highway 99 via the Upper Squamish Valley, using 130 kilometres of existing logging roads (which would be brought up to highway standard) from the Upper Sunshine Coast to the west and Highway 99 to the east. A total of 42 kilometres of new road, and a three-kilometre tunnel through Mount Casement would complete the connection.

At Thursday’s board meeting, Campbell River Director Andy Adams wanted to know what the reaction from B.C.’s transportation minister, Todd Stone, has been to the proposed route.

Fribance said the society has been in communication with Stone and his senior staff and is looking forward to a “serious” meeting with Stone in the near future. Fribance also acknowledged that the province has committed $250,000 to do a study on the feasibility and actual costs of the proposal.

“He’s never slammed the door on this,” Fribance said.

If the highway does come to fruition, the route would utilize the Comox-Powell River ferry, with the highway continuing on from Powell River to just south of Whistler where it would meet up with Highway 99.

Fribance said the Third Crossing Society expects the new link would result in a “dramatic increase” of people using the Comox-Powell River ferry.

“We expect traffic on the Comox ferry would triple,” Fribance said.

But the Third Society claims that with the amount of travellers being diverted away from the main ferry terminals in Nanaimo and Victoria, BC Ferries would save $855 million in operating costs, which would free up money to upgrade the Comox ferry terminal as well as pay for the highway and possibly a second new highway between Port Mellon and Highway 99. The group is estimating it will cost around $600 million to build the new 215-kilometre link.

It says any amount not covered could be recovered through a toll.

Campbell River Director Michele Babchuk urged the board to voice an interest in the proposal so that it can keep apprised of any developments.

Campbell River Director Ron Kerr said he believes the highway will come to fruition and the regional district should stand behind it.

“I’m totally 100 per cent in support of it,” Kerr said. “This is visionary you guys. We’re going to look back 40 years from now when it’s in and say ‘why didn’t we support this?’”

In the end, the board agreed to write a letter to the Third Crossing Society expressing its desire to be kept informed of the process.