Bigger culverts, more durable bridges: can BC build a more resilient transport system?

Transportation Minister Rob Fleming is confident it can be done with more money towards proactive highway disaster projects. But nature is a daunting foe.

By Tyler Olsen | December 6, 2022 |5:00 am

Transportation networks make countries.

The Romans knew it and built an empire atop its roads and sea routes. British Columbians in 1870 knew it as well and demanded a rail connection to the rest of the country if it were to agree to join Canada.

Today, most places are bound by a huge interlocked network of interlocking roads, railways, and air routes. But BC’s mountainous terrain mean the transport ties that bind the province are inevitably more fragile than those elsewhere.

Twelve months ago, a single storm severed those routes, cutting off entire regions, stranding travellers, truck drivers, and families. Shelves were bare. The province instituted fuel rationing.

A year later, BC Transportation Minister Rob Fleming admitted that neither his ministry nor British Columbians at large had fully appreciated how vulnerable the province’s highways and railways were to extreme weather.

“I don’t think anyone could have imagined that we would have suffered so much damage from a climate- and weather-related event of that magnitude,” he told The Current in an interview earlier this month.

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Newfound vulnerability

The collapse of the Coquihalla Highway and BC's links to the rest of the province prompted the need for fuel rationing last November. 📷 BC Government News
The collapse of the Coquihalla Highway and BC’s links to the rest of the province prompted the need for fuel rationing last November. 📷 BC Government News

The storm illustrated the vulnerability of the supply chains that keep BC’s economy functioning.

“Nobody would have imagined fuel rationing in the Lower Mainland,” Fleming told The Current

It wasn’t just that the Coquihalla Highway was washed away in multiple sections. The storm proved the incredible vulnerability of the province’s secondary highways and detour routes.

The geographical proximity of BC’s southeast highways to one another also meant that if a single weather event damaged one route, it could be expected to do the same to that route’s back-up corridors. When Highway 1 was covered in mud west of Hope, landslides also closed Highway 7, just a few kilometres to the north on the other side of the Fraser.

A year later the Port of Vancouver continues to see the impacts of the backlog created by the storms, Fleming said.

But he remains proud of his ministry’s response after the storm.

“To have [the Coquihalla Highway] open to commercial use within 35 days of the devastation and destruction really speaks to the …quality and skill of road builders in our province and the dedication of British Columbia to come together in a crisis.”

There will be long-term organizational benefits from the storm, Fleming said, pointing to better lines of communication with federal, local, and First Nation governments. He said the crisis demonstrated the capacity of the BC road-building and infrastructure sector; the ministry was still able to proceed with its already-planned projects.

When The Current spoke to Fleming, he had just concluded an event to announce the re-opening of Highway 8 between Merritt and Spences Bridge.

Still, no ‘Mission Accomplished’ sign can be hung on most other highways damaged last year.

The Coquihalla remains a long construction zone, with one-lane stretches and permanent repairs still ongoing. In the Fraser Canyon, Highway 1 features a four-kilometre stretch north of Boston Bar where only alternating traffic can proceed. There, drivers continue to use a temporary 80-metre single-lane bridge over a washed-out section of highway. Construction on a permanent solution is expected to take a year.

A temporary one-lane bridge remains in place on Highway 1. A permanent fix is in the works. 📷 BC Government News
A temporary one-lane bridge remains in place on Highway 1. A permanent fix is in the works. 📷 BC Government News

Federal and provincial politicians have repeated over and over again the need to rebuild infrastructure and highways in a way that makes them less vulnerable to future weather disasters.

“We shouldn’t just rebuild what we had, we should build for the year 2022 and beyond,” Fleming said. That means more-durable bridges and road structures and strengthened water drainage infrastructure so that water and mud don’t sweep away the province’s highway arteries.

In Sumas Prairie, it could also mean raising part or all of Highway 1 in conjunction with other flood protections.

A tiger dam was built on Highway 1 to prevent further flooding last November. 📷 BC Government News
A tiger dam was built on Highway 1 to prevent further flooding last November. 📷 BC Government News

Preparing for the future

But rebuilding damaged highway sections is only one part of the challenge. There are also those sections that escaped last year undamaged but could be at risk during a future storm. The province has hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres of highways that sit above, below, and on mountainsides and next to fast-moving rivers. The next extreme storm could trigger landslides and waterflows in any number of locations.

Fleming said the province and the federal government have discussed the need to shift resources away from reactive repairs toward “anticipating where we see changing climate and weather patterns and making our infrastructure stronger and more resilient.”

Those improvements, he said, are needed both on the biggest highways in the province and on secondary routes.

Last year’s storms and fires also demonstrated the challenges in building a road network with sufficient redundancies when key arteries are all located relatively close to one another. Before Highway 1 between Chilliwack and Abbotsford was even closed, the detour route north of the river had already been compromised. Flooding also buckled a section of Highway 11 just north of downtown Abbotsford. Highway 7 was closed in multiple places due to landslides.

“In some cases,” he said, “that means larger culvert systems that can handle more water from a mass precipitation event. In some cases, it means accelerating the replacement of older bridges.”

Last year also saw local governments create a new bypass route for goods. The province and the US government collaborated to allow trucks to use Northern Washington highways to get from the Lower Mainland to the BC Interior. That, Fleming said, could provide a template if a future event knocks out a key trucking route.

Transportation Minister Rob Fleming hailed the work of locals and volunteers like the Davesar family, which operates Hope Pizza Place. 📷 BC Government News
Transportation Minister Rob Fleming hailed the work of locals and volunteers like the Davesar family, which operates Hope Pizza Place. 📷 BC Government News

In late 2022, residents and officials have more reasons to be skeptical of the resilience of BC’s highway network than two—or 20—years ago. There’s a lot of work to do. But Fleming said he is also confident that work will get done.

“When we face uncertainty as a province, when we face difficult times, people come from really everywhere to help out,” he said. “If supplies need to be airlifted, we figure out a way to do that; the Canadian military can be relied upon when things are really dire. People stepped up with generosity and brought people into their homes that were stranded. People fed each other; service clubs, gurdwaras, church groups, they all sprung into action. And our people who are responsible for the highway system worked with maintenance contractors and trade unions pitched in and found workers that could be deployed immediately.

“We found a way through it better than I think everybody could expect.”

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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