Malahat safety upgrades worth the delays: officials

Short-term pain for long-term gain.

Travellers on the Malahat will have to deal with delays and lowered speed limits between June and September as another $15 million worth of improvements are done along the highway.

The project will widen the highway and add 2.3 kilometres of median barrier from Shawnigan Lake Road north to the Malahat Summit, the area widely known as NASCAR Corner. The work will also include construction of a one-kilometre southbound passing lane extension and improvements to the Whittaker Road and Holker Place intersections.

Rock blasting and paving will take place this summer, and the barriers are expected to be installed in the fall. The entire project is scheduled to be finished by spring 2015.

"This project will improve safety on a particularly challenging section of the Malahat, and when complete, 50 per cent of the highway will be divided with barrier," Comox Valley Liberal MLA Don McRae said as he kicked off construction on Monday on behalf of Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Todd Stone. "During construction, I urge motorists to respect our roadside workers and drive with caution through the construction site."

Parksville-Qualicum Liberal MLA Michelle Stilwell was also on hand to kick off construction.

"I drive the Malahat frequently, so I appreciate these safety improvements, especially the addition of a median barrier," she said. "As this is the main transportation link between Greater Victoria and the rest of

the Island, this government has shown it is committed to looking at ways to improve the safety of the Malahat."

Cowichan Valley Regional District Board Chair Rob Hutchins, who has first-hand knowledge of the traffic problems on the Malahat from his days as a volunteer firefighter in Mill Bay, was pleased to see the next phase of safety work get under way.

"This stretch of road has been a challenging stretch of road since it was constructed," he said. "We’ve been calling for further improvement on this stretch of highway for decades."

Hutchins acknowledged that, as has been the case with past construction projects on the Malahat, there will be an impact on businesses north of the pass.

"Any time you do road improvement, it’s a challenge for the travelling public," he said. "It’s kind of a catch-22: we have to endure the challenges to make a safer highway. It is a challenge, but there is no other answer."

The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure has tried to schedule construction to make things easier on travelers and businesses. Southbound traffic will not be stopped between 6 and 9 a.m., and northbound traffic will not be stopped between 3 and 6 p.m., although there will be delays of up to 20 minutes outside peak times from Monday

to Friday. Starting June 15, traffic will not be stopped on Friday afternoons or any time Saturday and Sunday. Traffic will not be stopped on long weekends, or on the days immediately before or after a long weekend.

That doesn’t quite alleviate the concerns of some business owners, like Marsha Stanley of Damali Lavender and Winery in Cobble Hill.

"During June, July and August, it’s not just weekends that people are travelling, especially the kinds of people that support businesses that rely on tourists," she said. "Last year I had people who would arrive and say that they spent two or three hours getting from Victoria. When people go back and relay that kind of story, that means that the next person doesn’t come."

Hutchins noted that he has heard concerns from residents and businesses, but in order to make the Malahat safer in the long run, the delays will have to be tolerated this summer.

"I’m not sure that there’s anywhere in the country where road work doesn’t have an impact," he said.