By Steve Hubrecht

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The Trans-Canada Highway will soon be closed once again between Golden and Field, and once again all cross-country traffic will be re-routed through the Columbia Valley on roads not truly built to handle  such volumes of vehicles. This means the risk of traffic accidents will increase. 

But valley residents can breathe a sigh of relief because this should be the final such closure and traffic diversion before the Kicking Horse Canyon project is more or less complete.

The project involves substantial and badly-needed upgrades to the Trans-Canada Highway (including making the road at least two lanes in each direction) through a notoriously dangerous stretch (the eponymous Kicking Horse Canyon) in order to make it safer. 

These upgrades have caused the complete closure of the Trans-Canada for several weeks to several months each spring and fall, from 2021 onward. As a result, traffic is forced to make an enormous, 200-plus kilometre detour off the Trans-Canada from Castle Junction (near Lake Louise) down Highway 93 south through Kootenay National Park to Radium Hot Springs and from there back up north along Highway 95 up to Golden to rejoin the Trans- Canada.

The first few closures — in spring 2021 and then again in fall 2021 — not only saw an astronomical surge in the amount of traffic pouring into and out of the Columbia Valley but also an accompanying dramatic spike in the number of motor vehicle accidents, many of them very serious. Several horrific and fatal accidents dominated headlines, and anecdotal accounts abounded among valley residents of death-defying near misses and of being run off the road while driving through Kootenay National Park. A number of residents told the Pioneer at the time that they outright refused to drive Highway 93 while the Trans-Canada closures were in effect.

At a Radium council meeting in early 2022, then councillor Mike Gray (he is now mayor) and then councillor Tyler McCauley pressed provincial officials involved with the project. The officials conceded there were some issues with what they termed “bad behaviour” among drivers but then suggested that council needed to take that issue up with the RCMP.

That exchange left many valley residents spluttering, since then Columbia Valley RCMP Sgt. Darren Kakuno had previously and repeatedly outlined to Invermere and Radium council members that the local RCMP detachment was understaffed and hard pressed to deal with the huge leap in traffic infractions in Kootenay National Park. 

“It’s been hard on the detachment. It’s been rough,” Kakuno said at the time. “We don’t have the resources, the bodies we need to properly cover the area. We’re just trying to keep up.”

Eventually, after some lobbying, extra Highway Patrol police officers from Cranbrook and Golden were assigned to patrol Highway 95 between Golden and Radium, and to patrol Highway 93 south through the park. This, in conjunction with better weather in the spring and fall 2022 closures, upgrades to Highway 95, and more flexible timing of the closures (i.e. the Trans-Canada was kept open on busy long weekends in spring and fall) helped reduce some of the problems. Traffic volumes were still very high, and the number of accidents was higher than normal, but not so dramatically as during the 2021 closures.

Still, many local residents continued to dread the closures, and continued to shun travelling on those roads while the re-routing was happening.

No surprise then, that local officials were happy that the work seems nearly done. 

“We don’t have official word yet, but we are hoping this might be the last full closure they have . . . from what I understand they are on target to be substantially completed this fall, doing the final pour, and then it may be just cosmetic work in the spring,” said Radium Mayor Mike Gray.

Gray’s sentiments were echoed by Invermere Mayor Al Miller who said he also heard, unofficially, that this will be the final big closure.      

If that is true that “would be tremendous,” he said.

Miller agreed that Highway 93 south has, at least at times, been quite dangerous during the closures.

“If everybody remains at the speed limit that road could theoretically manage heavy traffic. The problem is there always seems to be somebody who decides they have to drive faster than what is possible. And that’s when things go downhill,” said Miller.

He added the same thing applies on Highway 95 between Radium and Golden; although all the upgrades have made it a beautiful piece of infrastructure “there are some days when it’s fine and there are some days when somebody decides they just can’t wait. And then it becomes problematic.”

With Gray and Miller having both heard things unofficially, what is the official word from those in charge of the project?

A B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure spokesperson provided a statement to the Pioneer explaining that “no more multi-day full closures are anticipated after the fall extended closure, which ends just ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday long weekend . . . the project is to be substantially complete by the end of this fall. Remaining work over the winter/early spring 2024 will focus on completing landscaping, fencing, some paved surfaces and line painting.”

The statement confirmed Gray’s understanding that this fall will see the final pour, outlining more specifically that this will “involve pouring of concrete to fill gaps between previously poured bridge and viaduct deck segments.” The ministry went on to add, however, that concrete pours will continue into the fall beyond this fall’s extended closure as barriers and other structural features are completed. 

The project was first announced more than four years ago with a target completion date of winter 2023-2024. At the time many local residents were skeptical about the finish date, and suggested the upgrades would stretch years beyond the initial timeline. But it seems the upgrades will be finished more or less on schedule. The statement from the ministry was quick to credit the contractor for this, noting the contractor had come up with some innovative solutions to keep things moving on track and also explained that the project is exceptional for its size and complexity.

Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA Doug Clovechok was delighted that the closures are to be the last, and pleased the project will be done on time, but noted that it is also $115 million over budget.

The closures this fall will include an extended full closure from noon Sept. 18 to noon Sept. 22; another extended full closure from noon Sept. 25 to noon Oct. 6, a pause for the Thanksgiving long weekend from noon Oct. 6 to noon Oct. 10, and then a combination of 30 minute closures during the day and evening as well as some full nighttime closures between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. for the rest of the fall.