Yukon NDP Submission to the Alaska Highway Whitehorse Corridor Consultation

The Alaska Highway is Yukon’s most important transportation link – to our communities and to the world beyond our borders. It is the artery through which we import and export goods. It is Yukon’s Main Street for welcoming tourists driving to and from Alaska. The Alaska Highway is the local road for thousands of Yukoners who drive it on a daily basis to get to work or operate their business.

As Copperbelt South MLA and highways critic for the Yukon NDP Official Opposition I travel the highway daily. I submit the following on the Alaska Highway Whitehorse Corridor Draft Functional Plan.

There is no doubt that work needs to be done to improve public safety on this vitally important stretch of our main transportation artery. The highway Corridor contains numerous roadside memorials to lives lost, and government has a responsibility to improve safety and traffic flow.

The public needs to look very carefully at the proposals. If fully implemented, this project would cost in excess of $200 million. Work on the project would be initiated once population thresholds are reached: immediate-term (population 26,000), medium-term (35,000) and long-term (46,800). We have hit the population threshold for the immediate term and the immediate plan proposes work for 3 of 10 segments in the functional plan. It would twin the highway from Robert Service Way to past Two Mile Hill, limit direct access, and create frontage roads and multiuse trails at a cost in excess of $50 million.

The Yukon Party government says this work must be done to increase safety, reduce congestion, and accommodate anticipated population growth. But I question whether this plan, at this price tag, the best way to achieve these objectives.

Problems with the Plan

There are a number of problems with the Alaska Highway Corridor plan, and the case to twin the highway between Robert Service Way and north of Two Mile Hill in the immediate-term has not been made.

Morning and afternoon rush-hour traffic largely bypasses the Corridor, as commuters tend to take the Robert Service Way via Hamilton Boulevard or Two Mile Hill to get to downtown Whitehorse. There is little to suggest that the plan will do much to alleviate rush-hour congestion.

Twinning this section of the highway may increase greenhouse gas emissions, result in excessive speed within city limits, and will cost more for O&M of road maintenance and snow clearing.

Plan misses the mark on safety

DeLeur Consulting presented a highway safety report in 2011. The report looked at 3,100 accidents between 1996 and 2009. The highest collision location was the intersection of Two Mile Hill. In 2007 the Yukon Government reconstructed the intersection, adding separate left turn lanes and extremely large, raised curbed medians.

We don’t know whether these changes have improved or reduced safety. No safety data has been provided for 2010 to 2014.
The DeLeur report only presents traffic safety data to 2009. Yet, the plan would see more curbed barriers, more raised medians, and more busy intersections; it would see the more complicated engineering of Two Mile Hill writ large throughout the Corridor. There have been collisions with existing curbed barriers and raised medians, and the signs that warn motorists of them. Planning what is potentially a $200 million project without up-to-date traffic safety data is not sound, and not fiscally responsible.

Meanwhile, the bulk of high collision and severe collision spots in the Corridor won’t be fixed in the immediate-term. There are 14 spots that have had numerous accidents including fatalities. Yet only 2 of these spots will be addressed in the immediate term. The Carcross cut-off intersection and the Mayo Road intersection are dangerous locations that would not get immediate attention. Likewise Rabbit’s Foot Canyon – a notoriously bad stretch of road where there have been several deaths – is ignored until some future date if and when population hits 35,000.

There is also nothing in the functional plan about improving signage, highlighted in the DeLeur report as contributing to collisions, and lighting upgrades will only happen between Robert Service Way and north of Two Mile Hill.

Impact on Alaska Highway businesses and tourism between Robert Service Way and Two Mile Hill intersections

The plan would see local Whitehorse businesses and residents behind four lanes of divided highway with frontage roads and bypass roads. Local businesses have spoken out with concerns that the plan will put them out of business. The Alaska Highway is our main tourism thoroughfare and we want travellers to stop, see local attractions such as the Beringia Centre and Yukon Transportation Museum, and spend money in the local economy, not drive through Whitehorse at excessive speeds. It appears local businesses adjacent to the highway and tourism operators have not been factored into what is essentially a highway engineering exercise.

The functional plan contains 53 redacted pages on businesses and property owners that could be impacted, and the financial cost of expropriation would potentially drive project costs even higher. Work in the highway should minimize the impacts on businesses and property owners.

Impact on residents

Residents of McLean Lake will lose their direct highway access and they will instead be rerouted to a bypass road which travels northeast and then joins up with the Hamilton Boulevard extension. Other neighbourhoods will also lose direct access and be redirected to bypass roads. This may be problematic for the provision of fire, ambulance and other essential services.

Crossing a twinned highway will be difficult for non-motorized users. A wider Corridor makes it less safe for cyclists, walkers and runners to cross the highway. Even with controlled crossings, the highway right of way is still very large and dangerous, especially for children or anyone with mobility issues. This would be an issue in Hillcrest, Takhini, at Hamilton Boulevard, Crestview, and Porter Creek. There are also people who cross the highway at uncontrolled points for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the number of designated crossing points is limited. This would become an even more dangerous endeavour than it already is.

Residents of Takhini are concerned that the plan’s lack of sound barriers is an oversight.

Multi-Use Trails

The plan allows for trails along the Corridor, subject to discussion and approval with the City of Whitehorse on whether such trails will be paved and allow for motorized vehicles

Well-designed, paved trails will enable more residents to bike to work, and could be a safer alternative than the current practice of cycling along the highway shoulder. Unfortunately, the immediate plan would only see trails in the area from Robert Service Way to north of Two Mile Hill. To encourage bicycle commuting from Whitehorse residential subdivisions, paved trails should be extended south to Cowley Creek and north to Crestview.

Conclusion

It is clear that more work must be done so that Corridor reconstruction reflects community and business needs, strengthens our vision for tourism in the territory, and will have a real impact on improving safety.

The plan fails to demonstrate an immediate critical need for an expensive four lane segment between Robert Service Way and Two Mile Hill, while choosing to delay addressing other safety concerns. This consultation has been an opportunity for Yukoners to debate what the Alaska Highway Corridor means to them. Based on public comments, many of which are reflected in this submission, a number of issues need to be revisited before the plan is implemented.

From these conversations, it is clear that the Corridor needs some work to increase safety and enable drivers to pass slower moving vehicles. The effect of turning lanes with raised curbs, and eliminating passing lanes at Mount Sima and Meadow Lakes Golf Course done in previous highway reconstruction projects, should be assessed and any concerns resolved.

The Minister of Highways and Public Works has said that he will share any plans with the public before proceeding with construction in the Corridor. The Official Opposition will hold him accountable to this statement to ensure this consultation is the first, and not the only, chance for the public to speak about how the Alaska Highway Corridor can better meet their needs.

Photo: brucemckay / flickr. Used under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 licence.