Calls for alternative to Malahat Highway grow after deadly crash
A fatal crash that froze traffic for eight hours Wednesday on the only major route in and out of southern Vancouver Island has renewed calls for a travel alternative.
The crash killed the driver of a sewage truck on the highway near Goldstream Provincial Park when his vehicle collided with an SUV at 8:10 a.m.
As investigators worked to process the scene, Hazmat crews were also called in to deal with a sewage leak on the route.
Thousands of commuters trapped on either side of the crash site found themselves with no easy alternatives. While they understood the closure was unavoidable due to the tragic crash, it was a familiar predicament for many.
"This is the second time this summer that we've been impacted trying to get up-island where the Malahat's just been completely closed," said one driver who took her chances on the Mill Bay-Brentwood Bay BC Ferries route. The route traverses the Saanich Inlet, bypassing the Malahat entirely, but with a capacity for only 22 cars per trip it quickly filled up. At 12:45 p.m., BC Ferries announced that all sailings for the day had already sold out.
"Last time we didn't bother, this time we're giving it a shot," she said. "But it's happening too frequently now for this to be an ongoing thing, especially over the summer months when there's so many cars on the road and there's no other alternative."
B.C. Ministry of Transportation officials recommended a detour via the Pacific Marine Route, which connects Cowichan Lake to Port Renfrew, then to Highway 14 and back to the Trans-Canada Highway in Langford.
But many people who weighed in on the closure on social media said the route wasn't for the faint of heart, as it includes several one-way sections and can take between three to five hours to traverse.
BC Ferries recommended another detour by taking two separate ferries between Swartz Bay and Crofton, connecting through Salt Spring Island – also an hours-long journey.
Chris Foord, the chair of the CRD Traffic Safety Commission, said the current situation with the Malahat is "totally inadequate" and called the route the weakest link of all B.C. highways.
"When people ask me what's the best way to fix the Malahat I very simply say move it to Vancouver and it would have already been fixed," said Foord.
The Ministry of Transportation said building a new road isn't a viable option, but told CTV News it is exploring other ideas including more ferry routes. It would not elaborate further.
Others who spoke with CTV News Wednesday floated an idea that has been pitched almost every time Malahat closures occur – building a bridge across the Saanich Inlet.
When a fuel truck crash on the Malahat shut down traffic for more than 12 hours in May this year, B.C. Premier John Horgan was asked about the lack of transportation alternatives.
At the time, Horgan said the government would look at cost-effective solutions that could include dusting off a shelved 2007 study under the then-BC Liberal government.
The study pegged costs associated with such a large project in the range of $700-million to $1.2-billion, and the government instead decided to invest in Malahat Highway safety upgraded.
Horgan said significant safety improvements have since taken place on the Malahat including wider shoulders, median barriers and safer intersections.
Green MLA Sonia Furstenau, who was among those caught up in the long ferry line-ups Wednesday, says whatever the solution is – it needs to come soon.
"It's not time to keep studying or keep delaying. There have been plenty of studies done," said Furstenau. "We actually just need to start solving these problems."
Central Saanich Mayor Ryan Windsor agreed, and echoed calls for more ferry service between Brentwood Bay and Mill Bay.
"There's lots that needs to happen and there's a regional conversation that I think we need to have about the Malahat, and it's timely," said Windsor. "But in the interim, because those are bigger projects, one of the items we think is low-hanging fruit is adding a second ferry on this route, which would increase the capacity of the route both for accident scenarios and expanding tourism in the region. This is becoming a busier route."
Traffic on the Malahat eventually reopened both ways at around 4 p.m., but after another lengthy closure, it has underscored a debate many islanders say needs to end with a clear solution.