By Steve Hubrecht

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The federal government recently announced some big spending in Canada’s mountain national parks. A significant portion of that has been earmarked specifically for highway upgrades in Kootenay National Park.

In total, nearly $71 million is being spent, the overwhelming majority for various improvements. Although the lion’s share will go to the two biggest Alberta mountain national parks (Banff and Jasper), a big chunk — $10.4 million — will go to much needed renovation on Highway 93 South, which runs through Kootenay National Park from the Castle Junction turnoff to Radium Hot Springs.

Anybody who has been terrified (or frustrated) by driving on Highway 93 South through Kootenay will  be glad to know that that $10. 4 million will including widening shoulders on the highway and adding passing lanes. The highway has earned an informal reputation among Columbia Valley residents as the ‘road of death’. 

This horrific, but perhaps well-earned, nickname comes because the road is frequently narrow with small shoulders; has plenty of wildlife lurking near the road’s edge waiting to step out; is mostly one-lane in each direction and has few passing lanes. Despite these factors, a great many motorists drive at speeds far more appropriate for the multi-lanes, wide shoulders and banked turns of the TransCanada Highway. The mix of aggressive and cautious drivers on Highway 93 South, in conjunction with the distinct lack of passing lanes, means there are invariably bottlenecks and a fair amount of dangerous passing.

About a decade ago the Pioneer highlighted the terrible toll the road has taken in terms of human life, with an infographic map (also labelled ‘the road of death’) which highlighted the number of fatal and serious accidents along the highway in recent years. Readers with long memories will recall that there were so many horrible accidents that they could not all be marked individually (despite the Pioneer printing the map quite largely) and the map instead displayed many clumped dots, each of which represented multiple accidents.

The situation has become even more pronounced in recent years, with the advent of the Kicking Horse Canyon Project. This project sees the TransCanada Highway completely shut down between Field and Golden for several weeks each spring and fall, and all cross-country traffic subsequently re-routed off the TransCanada down Highway 93 from Castle Junction to Radium, then back up north from Radium along Highway 95 to Golden, where it rejoins the TransCanada. These closures send the volume of traffic heading through the Columbia Valley soaring, and put it on highways not designed to handle that kind of vehicle flow. This has resulted in a dramatic spike in the number of accidents on Highway 93 South and Highway 95 between Radium and Golden. The Pioneer has been inundated with complaints from local residents about the situation, with many outlining that they are now afraid (with good reason) to drive to Calgary during the closures. Many have reported almost being caught in accidents, and several have related stories about swerving into the ditch at the last minute to avoid a crash. One particularly dramatic case involved a local resident who drove around a blind corner and saw two semi trucks coming right at him — one truck travelling in the opposite lanes and another semi trying to illegally (and dangerously) pass the other. Fortunately he was able to get his vehicle off the road in the nick of time.

Police are beefing up their presence on these roadways in response, but with limited human resources, there is only so much they can do, and the news of the planned improvements to Highway 93 South has already been greeted with a positive response from valley residents.

The upgrades on Highway 93 South will also include improving wildlife fencing, making a few key intersections better and fixing up the road surface. In addition there will be avalanche mitigation measures taken, new culverts, some bridges replaced and some slope and retaining wall stabilization. 

Work will begin this spring and will affect traffic at various locations.

Aside from the upgrades to the Kootenay Parkway (Highway 93 South), the $71 million also includes $11.3 million to fix up the TransCanada between Castle Junction and Lake Louise; $9.8 million to improve Lake Louise Drive; $4.3 million for Highway 11 in Banff National Park; $11.2 million for the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93 North) between Lake Louise and Jasper; $1.7 million to design new bridges at Snaring and Moberly in Jasper National Park and; $9 million for upgrades on the TransCanada in Yoho National Park.

The Pioneer reached out to Parks Canada for further information on where exactly on Highway 93 South shoulders would be widened and passing lanes added, which intersections would be improved, and when precisely the work would start, but was not able to get comment prior to press deadline.