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Debate takes a turn toward feasibility

Alternative connections could reduce dependency on ferries
Dean Unger

Unlike 150 years ago, today the technology exists to create a mid-province corridor, connecting the Powell River coastline with the Interior, but while some believe it is time, others believe it cannot and should not be done.

The debate centres on whether or not the notion of a third crossing route is economically viable. Given modern methods and means, it is not a question of if the crossing could be built, it is whether the benefit obtained from such a road would outweigh the costs. New technology, the need for economic growth in isolated areas and the prospect of an economic corridor extending from Vancouver Island through to the BC Interior battles with cautious balanced skepticism based on the reality of the same tough country that beat the men who tried to break through a century before.

One of the main objections to a third crossing that comes up in the discussion is a more affordable, more easily managed, solution to the problem. A bridge to link the Sechelt Peninsula and Saltery Bay, thus removing the need for one of the two ferries on the coastal route to the Lower Mainland, has been suggested. Some believe that opening an overland route to the area would attract an undesirable element and blight the essence of Powell River.

Former president of the Third Crossing Society, Tom Wheeler, wrote that the road to link the Upper Sunshine Coast to the rest of the mainland should be developed in part as access to an inter-province route, but also to provide a network of world-class cycling trails that could link to the Trans Canada Trail. “There is funding for the Trans Canada Trail,” Wheeler wrote. “The route could be developed as a cycling trail network with enough scenery and uniqueness to draw cyclists from around the globe.”

In a viewpoint published in the Peak in July 2013, Peter Behr wrote that although the road would provide Powell River some measure of economic stimulus, there are many drawbacks to the initiative.

“A corridor from the interior is encouraging,” Behr stated, “but, it will not achieve what we hope it would. I spend a lot of time hiking the back country. A highway to Squamish would need regular snow and ice removal eight months a year. The cost would be astronomical. Ice and snow would also discourage travel.

“Then there is the cost of emergency services. Flat tires, empty gas tanks, ice-caused collisions, avalanches, or snow storms can cause serious emergencies when help can be hours, or, in stormy weather, even days away.”

Behr went on to explain that the Europeans have built roads and tunnels through mountains in Switzerland that link Germany and Italy, but those highways service more than 80 million people, not a small town of 20,000 and a few thousand north Vancouver Islanders. “Taxpayers have to consider the cost to benefit ratio regarding population served. These dollars could be better spent on education, health care or on improving ferry service.”

To answer this, Colin Palmer, a member of the Third Crossing board of directors and Powell River Regional District board chair, said regardless of the challenges that need to be overcome, it is achievable with a wider scope than what has been previously considered. “The reality is that it’s another string in the bowl pushing for economic development in the area. Bob Astrope was on council and was very active about it. My conclusion after talking with Astrope, was that just getting a road through to Squamish was not going to be enough. There needed to be more to the concept to entice stakeholders to come to the table. I began talking about an economic corridor from Vancouver Island right through the Interior, hitting numerous cities along the way. That concept seems to have caught quite a bit of attention.”

Palmer said there are other key people involved now. “We spoke with MP John Weston, who said he would be willing to help, but if you’re the only ones talking about it it’s going to be a stretch. He recommended getting more support from other communities that would stand to benefit.” Weston represents the West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country riding.

“I don’t want Powell River to change,” Palmer said, “but now with the ferries, what do we have? What is the alternative going to be? We’ve just got to try and prove that you can get through the last 30 [kilometres]. That’s all that’s remaining to break a road through.”

The Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District, the Town of Comox and the Comox Valley Airport Commission have joined a growing chorus of support for a mid-province economic corridor.

“We’ve got Squamish on board, Pemberton [and District] Chamber of Commerce, we’ve spoken to the Sechelt band and they are in full support of the concept, we’ve spoken to the [Tla’amin (Sliammon) First Nation] band council and got an excellent response,” Palmer said. “The Comox airport authority has issued a letter of support, and the mayor of Comox is interested. The Powell River regional board and city council all agree with the concept. We’ve made a lot of headway.”

The society continues its efforts to connect the route. “The beauty of this proposed new mid-province transportation corridor is that much of it is already in place,” he said. “We are looking at developing a task force with an end goal to push through from the end of Goat Main to Lausman Pass and down into Jervis Inlet area. We’d like to get that last 30 kilometres down to 20 and then keep going from there. It would be historic for Powell River to accomplish this. I can tell you instead of sitting around waiting for BC Ferries to bail us out, I’d rather do something than just fade away.”

As with any policy decision or any major debate, all of the main points must be stood on end and logic allowed to knock them down or leave them standing. From what remains standing, perhaps therein lies the solution.

This is the final instalment of a three-part series exploring the possibility of a road linking Powell River to the BC Interior and Lower Mainland via Squamish.