10 Reasons Why BC is Doing Highways All Wrong

There’s something seriously flawed with the way four lane highways are built in British Columbia. You may be thinking that there’s no issue, but remember, that’s what the alcoholic thinks before he realizes he has a problem. The step toward recovery is to first realize you have a problem, and all that takes is a little travelling anywhere else in North America. By doing just that, you will discover how roads are supposed to be built in the 21st century.

fourlanevstwin

Twinned highway on Vancouver Island versus a four-laned highway in the Cariboo.

The problem with BC’s multi-lane highways is that they are four-laned instead of twined. Yes, it is true that the four-laning is a step up from windy, two lane roads – and three steps up on horse and buggy dirt roads of a century ago, but it’s not the standard way of building highways in the 21st century — and for good reason. The normal evolution of highway improvements in the Western World is to first straighten the two lane section, and then to twin the highway (these two steps are often accomplished at the same time).

Twinning involves leaving a grassy or earthen median between the lanes, but in contrast BC opts for four-laning — separating the lanes instead with a narrow strip of paved asphalt. Twinned highways come with the added bonus of overpasses instead of traffic lights, or at the very least, room for future overpasses. In other words, with lower costs down the road. In addition, twinned highways often separate the lanes by 100s of meters so level crossings are possible without lights (cross-traffic need only traverse one direction at a time).

The critic might say that BC has a lot more mountains that other jurisdictions so it just isn’t possible to build roads to the first-world standards, but if that were the case why is the 450 km section of the relatively flat and straight “Cariboo Connector” from Cache Creek to Prince George in the process of being four-laned and not twinned? Additionally, why is that you cannot drive through a town in the BC interior over 8,000 people without being greeted with traffic lights (the largest town being Merritt for you trivia buffs)?

The reason is simple. More than half of the tax on fuel in the province goes into general revenue instead of roads. This leaves BC in a cash crunch, so the government opts for the method with the lower upfront costs, even if it leads to a higher long term price tag.

Are the additional costs of twinning worth the initial investment? The obvious answer from other jurisdictions is “yes.” Here are just 10 reasons why British Columbia should stop four-laning highways in favour of twinning:

4lane1

Four lane highway near Vernon.

1) Four-laned highways are ugly. Anyone who has ever driven from Vernon to Kamloops will tell you that the look and feel of the drive improves greatly as the highway opens up into a divided highway along the South Thompson river. Yes, even in a semi-arid environment like Kamloops the grass down the middle enhances the driving experience.

Incidentally enough, Kamloops has a lot of “green space” (or brown space if you prefer). This shows good forethought and planning because the amount of green space is one of the key differences between desirable locations and less desirable ones. Green space comes in many forms, including grass between sidewalks and streets, parks, and grass down the middle of roadways. Green space looks and feels nicer, and it tells the world that you are a welcoming place to visit or take up residence.

highway alberta

Typical multi-lane highway in Alberta.

2) Four-laned highways are bad for wildlife. All highways are bad for wildlife to one degree or another, but when there’s no separation between lanes, wildlife have the arduous task of crossing all four lanes of traffic at once. Imagine you’re driving at highway speed on a busy four lane section of road in the Okanagan when a coyote or deer gets stuck always across the highway as traffic whizzes past. To make matters worse, imagine him tying to stay in the middle that is occupied by a concrete median. Replace that with a grass median, and he has a moment to rest and collect his wits. He lives, and you get to work without hitting an animal.

3) Four-laned highways are subject to head-ons. While they may be safer than two lane highways, four lane undivided highways still experience deadly head-ons. The province will often build a four-lane highway, and then realize after the fact it didn’t
prevent head-ons to the degree hoped so they’ll install a concrete median down the middle of the road. The problem with concrete medians is that they box you in. The consequences can be severe if something unexpected happens in front of you. Concrete walls of any type tend to be quite deadly, which is why other jurisdictions are shying away from concrete in favour of cables.

twin1

Twinned highway near Kamloops.

Had they twinned the highway in the first place with an earthen median, lives could have been saved. A number of years ago I was driving the Coquihalla highway south into Merritt, and  witnessed first hand how grass medians prevent carnage and possibly death. The road was bare, and the sun was shining, and then suddenly the surface was sheer ice. There was a semi behind me barreling down at 120 km/h while a black F-150 led the way in front of me. All I could do was grip the steering wheel and keep going at a steady speed.

The truck in front of me tapped the brakes, lost control, and spun into the median. I had to keep going without hitting the breaks because I didn’t want to be made into hamburger by the semi behind me. Had a concrete barrier been in place instead of the grass median, the lady driving the truck would have bounded off the wall, and I would have careened into the back of her two seconds before the semi plowed into the back of me. But that didn’t happen, and the rest of you with car insurance were off the hook footing the bill; as I looked  back in my rear view mirror I could see the lady pulling back onto the highway totally unharmed.

Besides car collisions, rocks and other types of hazards can emanate from oncoming traffic, or in my case, a dump truck once passed me at just the right moment to drop a large rock on my windshield. The extra cost to everyone just by insurance alone should be enough to end this practice. We know that I-90 through the Cascade Mountains in Washington State was recently upgraded to separate the lanes with a proper earth median in large part because of the improved safety over the old concrete divider method.

twin3

Twinned Okanagan Connector showing how snow is piled into the middle.

4) Four-laned highways negatively impact snow removal and water shedding. On the twinned portion of the Coquihalla Highway, plows will turn their blades to the inside, and then plow snow into the median. This is much safer for obvious reasons. The last time I was on the freeway during a snowstorm, cars were parked in the slow lane with drivers standing outside to put on their chains. Simultaneously, the plow truck went by. Had there been a narrow divide between opposing traffic as with four-laned highways, this would have presented a dangerous situation to those not wishing for a shower of snow, rocks, and salt or for those in the oncoming lanes not wishing the same fate. This is an important consideration in BC’s interior where snow abounds for much of the year.

The summer months face the issue of rain and the effects of water pooling on the roadway. Highway engineers mitigate against this problem by designing crowned road surfaces. Four-laned highways are often six lanes wide where there are significant inclines, and this presents a challenge not faced with twinned highways of the same size. Either the crowning has to be less pronounced, increasing the probability of water pooling (especially after ruts have formed), or the difference between angles from one side of the road to the other becomes significant enough to increase accident potential on corners (of which BC has more than its fair share thanks to the less than flat geography).

4lane3

New four-laned highway with the lanes connected, leaving no room for future expansion.

5) Four-laned highways are short sighted. When the Lower Mainland’s highway 1 was expanded to four lanes decades ago, it was done with a large center median 100s of meters wide. Not only did it improve safety by removing all oncoming traffic, but it made adding lanes in the future far more affordable. When the highway was recently widened, lanes are merely added to the inside median, saving 100s of millions of dollars in expropriation costs.

Had this foresight not been in place when the highway was originally constructed, the cost may have been prohibitively expensive to go ahead. Kelowna is one of the fastest growing cities in Canada, and doesn’t have this type of forethought to work with. The main highway through Kelowna is 4-laned from Peachland to Armstrong, and these’s no room to expand in the middle. In the decades to come when Kelowna’s population approaches that of the Fraser Valley, it will be prohibitively expensive to add additional lanes.

Abbotsfordfreeway

Highway 1 in the Fraser Valley

 

6) Four-laned highways kick the can down the road. The province tends to upgrade highways in piecemeal fashion. I don’t know any other jurisdiction in North America that does this, where –instead of building outward from the larger centres — the easy, less expensive sections of road are upgraded first. This leaves the most expensive sections of road for future generations to deal with.

Currently, the four-laned highway near Kelowna is being widened to 6 lanes, and it’s extremely expensive because land is being expropriated at 1 million dollars per acre. This extra costs disincentivizes future expansion, which will delay progress and increase accident rates.

When the main highway on the Lower Mainland was widened to 4-lanes decades ago, it was twinned. Now that the populations around Vancouver are to the point the highway needs additional lanes, the government is going to spend 235 million dollars expanding the highway. Had the highway been built like they are doing in the interior of the province today, the costs associated with expropriating land would triple the price tag. We live in a world of scarcity, which means such a scenario sucks away half a billion dollars from other worthwhile projects.

 

fourlane1

Typical section of the four-laned “Cariboo Connector.”

7) Four-laned highways are bad for night driving.  The more I drive the province, the more I wonder if the politicians and bureaucrats tasked with deciding highway construction ever drive the provincial highways at night. I suspect they mostly fly because driving at night can be quite the nightmare on four-laned highways, especially for seniors. Not only are the oncoming lights closer to you, but they are at the same level, which causes momentary blindness. That’s about as safe as closing your eyes shut for a few seconds as you meet oncoming traffic. To add insult to injury, the lines don’t last very long with the modern paint, so you’re not always entirely sure which side of the road you’re on.

That brings up another point about twinned highways. They can bank the corners the proper way so that water flows to the inside. Contrast that with say, highway 97 south of Vernon, and you often find the corners are banked the wrong way on the outside lanes. All the while you can’t see because someone is shining their headlights in your eyes, nor can you find the lines because they have worn off over winter. No wonder why one such infamous corner in the Okanagan has seen more than its fair share of unsuspecting tourists drift into oncoming traffic.

8) Four-laned highways discriminate against minorities. And by minorities, I mean interior folks who only make up 1/5 of BC’s population. Because the government has a Vancouver-centric view of the province, it fails to realize that some interior highways are as busy today as the Lower Mainland’s Trans-Canada was when it was twinned. Billions are spend upgrading and widening free-ways down in the Lower Mainland, while the interior roads are still getting  the second fiddle treatment.

Highways are four-laned instead of twined for no apparent reason other than it’s not the Lower Mainland. In the future when it comes time to upgrade highways to six lanes in the interior, namely the Okanagan, it will cost billions because no one had the forethought to leave grass down the middle when the highways first went to four lanes. Meanwhile, development will have built up right to the edge of the road.

And of course, the interior folks are also becoming increasingly older, and since older folks cannot see as well at night when the lines are gone and oncoming headlights are right in their faces, four-laning is also ageist.

twin4

Coquihalla highway new Kamloops.

9) Four-laned highways are bad for business and discourage tourism. This is a no-brainer. The speed limits are slower on four laned roads, slowing traffic and commerce in the process. Slower traffic frustrates tourists, not to mention the ugly factor. The future designs for the Trans-Canada from Kamloops to Alberta involves 4-laning for a maximum speed of 100km/h. Most of the highway is already 100km/h, so these does not improve traffic speed a whole lot. Why not design it right the first time by designing to a 120km/h speed limit like they did with the Coquihalla?

British Columbia is a huge province so a small speed limit change can make a dramatic difference. To illustrate this point, let’s look at the 450 km section from Cache Creek to Prince George that slated to be four-laned. At 100 km/h it will take you 4 hours and 30 minutes, at 110km/h it will take you under 4 hours and 6 minutes, and at 120 km/h it will take you 3 hours and 45 minutes. At about 1000 trucks per day taking this route, a 10 km/h boost in the traffic speed would save the economy 400 lost hours every day, or 3.5 million hours per year.

Then there’s the traffic light issue. It seems to me the the number of lanes counts more among designers than the actual speed you can travel on the highways. If one were to take highway 97 from Vernon down to Osoyoos, a distance of 180 km, there’s a traffic light on average every three kilometers, and this is considered of the major highways in British Columbia! Most of this highway has been “upgraded” to four lanes, and yet the average speed you can travel at has hardly budged.  Just imagine how the tourist feels. 

The last time I was a tourist on Vancouver Island driving between Victoria and Nanaimo, I hit seven red lights in a row. There’s nothing that says “welcome to British Columbia” like a line of red lights on a relatively rural section of highway. Here I was travelling at 100 km/h, and suddenly I have to brake hard at the bottom of a long hill because there was a light turning red in front of me. Not only was this frustrating, but it contributed significantly to the air pollution problem. 

10) Four-laned highways are bad for the environment. Think of it this way. Stopping for those seven lights consumed about 1 litre of fuel (not to mention brake wear and tear). Burning 1 litre of gasoline produces 2.3 kg of CO2 (the emissions combine with the air, hence the increased mass). So if we have 20,000 cars per day making this same trip (as this section of road has), those seven traffic lights have increased annual CO2 emissions by 16 million kilograms or 35 million pounds. Let’s say that the average car only stopped at 50% of them. This still means that the wasted fuel is equivalent to idling 100 cars 24 hours per day for 365 days per year. Here’s an idea, instead of using the carbon tax to cut fuel consumption, how about take out the traffic lights on 100km/h highways.

If that isn’t bad enough, four-laned highways have the lanes built close enough together that additional fuel is wasted overcoming the wind resistance associated with oncoming vehicles.

This is serious business because we know EVERYTHING bad in this world is caused by Climate Change – and I mean everything from the creation of ISIS to the spread of oyster herpes. It’s all there, and it’s all really bad stuff – all driven by CO2 emissions of course.

So unless you support herpes and ISIS, you will be demanding change to the way roads are built in this province.

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