An improved gravel road through the Lillooet Lake/Harrison Lake corridor would serve as a viable alternative in the event of a closure of Highway 99 such as the one that shut down the main route to Whistler and Pemberton for four days last week, a First Nations leader said.
Gerard Peters (Eppa), lead treaty negotiator for the In-SHUCK-CH Nation, on Friday (Aug. 1) reiterated his call for the provincial and federal governments to take action to improve the Lillooet and Harrison West forest service roads (FSR) so that the route - often called the Sasquatch Highway idea -can handle much larger volumes of traffic than it does now.
Peters, whose people have made demands for an upgraded road through their territory a key issue at the treaty negotiating table, said he would accept an improved gravel road -costing an estimated $25 to $40 million - as a first step toward full highway status for the road linking Pemberton and Mount Currie with Harrison Mills in the northern Fraser Valley.
At the moment, some sections of the route are passable only by good four-wheel-drive vehicles. In the event of a blockage such as the July 29 rockslide that closed Highway 99 for four days, the Sasquatch Highway route - even if only upgraded to handle traffic at 60 km/h - would cut two or three hours off the drive from Pemberton to the Lower Mainland as compared to the existing Duffey Lake route.
And it would spur economic development along the Lillooet Lake/Harrison Lake corridor, he said.
"When you compare it to what's in the existing road network, it's more cost efficient than other options," Peters said, adding that the idea has the support of many leaders, both Aboriginal and non-First Nations, in the Pemberton and Fraser valleys.
An upgraded road through the Lillooet-Harrison corridor "would highly have benefited all the businesses in Pemberton, and in Whistler" during the Highway 99 closure last week, said Margit de Haan, proprietor of the Greenwood Country Inn in Pemberton. She added that the route would most likely be safer than Highway 99 and less susceptible to weather-related delays.
In 2003, a government-commissioned study estimated the cost of upgrading the road to highway status at $275 million. The following year, it separate economic impact study was conducted, and afterward government officials concluded that the benefits did not justify the expense. At the time, Peters said he didn't feel the study examined all the impacts on communities at both ends of the corridor and called for a new economic impact analysis. No such study has been initiated.
Last year, Peters said the In-SHUCK-ch would support an upgraded gravel road as one step toward full highway status in the future. Several months ago the provincial government put up $75,000 and the Feds $25,000 for an engineering analysis of the road, showing where it would need to be altered to make it safer and easier to drive and maintain.
Hedberg and Associates, a Squamish-based forestry consulting firm, has been working on that analysis since early this year and should deliver the results to the In-SHUCK-ch Nation in the next couple of weeks, company official Mike Hedberg told The Question on Monday (Aug. 4).
"There are sections of road that obviously need to be upgraded for safety and for sightlines," Hedberg said. "Much of the road doesn't even have a maintainable surface on it - you grade it and after just a few days, it gets punched away."
Hedberg said a few of the firm's preliminary findings have already been implemented, including one point 26 kilometres from Highway 99 at which the road has been realigned.
As far as the larger picture is concerned, "The whole idea of the study is to have an upgrade plan so that you have a document is in hand so that when funding does become available, you have a starting point for those upgrades," he said.
Peters said that while he recognizes that it's not a policy of the federal department of Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC) to provide funding for road upgrades, Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl -who also happens to be the Member of Parliament for the region that includes the In-SHUCK-ch corridor - should make an exception in this case. He said the Feds' past support for the Nisga'a Highway in northern B.C. provides a precedent for such a move. He said the In-SHUCK-ch have written to Strahl to make that point.
"I think the Feds need to kick in for part of the cost. They have fiduciary responsibility for Indian reserve lands," Peters said.
"I think we're well positioned to shake the mandate tree now, because we're closing in on a final agreement," he said. "I think the political climate now lends itself well to this being a consideration, and also given the fact that there's buzz about a federal election, and we know that the Province is going to an election in 10 months as well. That's the window, I think, that I need to get both levels of government to pay attention to this issue."
Minister Strahl was on holidays and unavailable for comment this week, an INAC official said.
- With files from Megan Grittani-Livingston, The Question.