Following the closure of Highway 4 over the summer due to a wildfire, the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District (ACRD) is looking at both a short-term emergency alternative to the highway and a secondary, permanent route out of the Alberni Valley.
The ACRD hosted its inaugural Transportation Advisory Committee meeting on Oct. 31; it was formed in direct response to the highway closures over the summer. The committee is made up of government and First Nations representatives from Port Alberni, Bamfield and the West Coast, as well as representatives of the business communities, the Port Alberni Port Authority and forestry companies.
“The first job for this committee is the exploration of an alternative route,” explained ACRD CAO Daniel Sailland. He said that this exploration will end with a business plan to be presented to the province.
Michael Pearson, director for Vancouver Island district with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, attended the meeting last Wednesday and explained that studies have been done on various alternate routes dating back decades.
“We’re not looking to reproduce those,” he said. “We’re looking at [the routes] not as a secondary highway but a closer look at them as emergency detour routes.”
He said that the province is looking at the Horne Lake Connector, the route to Cumberland and the route to Lake Cowichan, with the goal only of making one of them more accessible and usable in the case of an emergency. A secondary, permanent route will be more complicated, he added, because the roads are private roads.
The province plans to hire a consultant to look at an emergency route by the end of the year, with an assessment completed by the end of 2024.
However, other members of the committee were not happy to hear that the province is only looking at an emergency route, instead of a secondary highway. Cindy Solda, a councillor with the City of Port Alberni, wasn’t impressed with the timeline.
“If there is an emergency, we don’t want to wait until the end of 2024,” she said. “There has to be something else in between.”
Member at large John McNabb, representing the business community, said Port Alberni and west coast businesses were hugely affected by the closures and want to see an alternative route, not just a route for emergencies only.
“It’s been a phenomenal loss that was completely unexpected and right on the heels of COVID,” said McNabb. “I think we’re behind the curve on getting this rolling.”
Ken Watts, the elected Chief Councillor for Tseshaht First Nation, said his nation is pushing for both an emergency route and a secondary highway.
“We’re pushing for both,” he said. “There are temporary things that need to be done and dealt with now in cases of emergency, and there’s a long-term secondary plan. I don’t think you can talk about just one of them—I think you need to address both of them.”
The committee agreed on Wednesday to add both of these goals to their terms of reference.
“The emergency route is vitally important,” said Sailland. “But I think the alternate, permanent route is really the bigger picture that we will be well-served to ask questions around.”
Pearson told the committee that despite the gates that were installed along Highway 4 just last month, the province is not expecting any more long-term closures of the highway.
“The work we did over the summer where the fire occurred, we’ve returned the risk of debris-fall to the same or better than it was before,” said Pearson. “We’re not anticipating any long duration closures on Highway 4 this winter.”
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