Much-needed Tofino Highway upgrades promises travel headaches this summer

Denise Titian, January 11, 2018

Construction on a 1.5-kilometre stretch of highway overlooking Kennedy Lake is set to start this spring to make the journey to Vancouver Island's west coast safer. (B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure photo)

Pacific Rim Highway — 

Summer travel along the narrow, winding Highway 4 West can be challenging at the best of times. The former logging road is shared by local residents, commuters, commercial traffic and the droves of slow-moving tourist-type vehicles headed for the west coast – and it’s about to get worse.

The federal and provincial governments announced that they have agreed to jointly fund $27 million in upgrades over the next two years to the western portion of Highway 4. The work could begin as early as spring 2018, depending on how the construction tendering process progresses.

The area of highway to be improved is probably the most dangerous section. It is a short section that winds its way up the steep Kennedy Hill. About 14 kilometres east of the Tofino-Ucluelet junction, the road at Kennedy Hill hugs the side of a rock wall, with a sheer drop to the lake on the other side. There is little to no shoulder room and only a concrete barrier between the road and the lake. The rock overhang above the road forces large, commercial vehicles to cross the center line on sharp corners to avoid contact with the cliff.

“The project will widen and straighten a 1.5-kilometre stretch of highway presently known for its 30-kilometre/hour speed advisory, sharp curves and poor sight lines,” according to a joint government statement.

The work will begin in spring 2018 starting at the bottom/south end of Kennedy Hill at TR 19 Creek culvert and will continue uphill for 1.5 kilometres. The section of highway which skirts along the edge of Kennedy Lake will not only be widened but also regraded and rerouted in some areas, in order to straighten out some of the sharper corners and lessen the steepness of the road at the hill.

A portion of the old highway will be transformed into a rest area and view point with safe access points off of the newly built section of highway.

In order to do the work, blasting and rock excavation must be carried out. Blasting will eliminate rock overhang above the highway and will provide material needed to reduce the 12 per cent grade of the hill to nine per cent.

It is proposed that the highway be closed for several hours overnight to allow for blasting.

The road closures will undoubtedly make for long line-ups of traffic in both directions and travellers should prepare for long waits.

The B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure proposes that, beginning June 15 to Sept. 15, the highway through the construction zone shuts down from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. with two, one-hour openings.

The Ministry will hold public consultations in Tofino and Ucluelet to determine the best time for the one-hour openings.

Contingency plans are in place for cases of emergency with local health authorities, BC Ambulance Services, RCMP and others.

While everyone acknowledges that the project will bring travel headaches over two years, it is a long-awaited and welcome upgrade to probably the most dangerous section of the treacherous highway.

A large portion of Highway 4 West, including the Kennedy Lake area, lies in Tla-o-qui-aht traditional territory. Elected Chief Elmer Frank said his nation is looking forward to the improvements and hopes that his people are involved in some way.

“We see there is significant benefits that are going to improve the safety of this stretch of the highway; we are hopeful that during this project Tla-o-qui-aht will get some employment opportunities for the duration of the project,” he said.

Chief Frank went on to say that government officials have been and are still consulting with Tla-o-qui-aht Ha’wiih.

Highway 4 is the longest east-west highway on Vancouver Island and is the only road linking the tourism destination communities of Tofino and Ucluelet, and the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve to the rest of Vancouver Island. It is also the only road linking the Nuu-chah-nulth communities of Ahousaht, Hesquiaht, Tla-o-qui-aht, Yucluthaht and Toquaht to the nearest urban center, Port Alberni.

“This project will make it safer and easier for local residents, tourists and commercial drivers travelling along Kennedy Lake,” said Amarjeet Sohi, Canada’s minister of Infrastructure and Communities, in a government statement.

Construction is expected to last approximately two years, beginning in spring 2018 and ending in spring 2020.

Community Information Sessions are scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. in Tofino at Tin Wis Best Western and on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Ucluelet Community Centre.