Transportation Minister Rob Fleming Wednesday (Nov. 15) hailed the official completion of repairs to Highway 5 (Coquihalla) as an “amazing accomplishment” and an important development for B.C. ‘s economy.
But he also warned of a “new normal” that could get expensive.
“Our infrastructure has to be able to withstand extreme weather conditions,” Fleming said. “This is the new normal for the safety of our residents and the movement of goods throughout the province. This is an important infrastructure for British Columbia.”
He made these comments at the provincial legislature Victoria, where he announced that crews working non-stop for two years have completed permanent repairs to the highway connecting the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley to key cities in the Interior including the fast-growing metropolitan area of Kelowna, Kamloops and places beyond both communities to the north, south and east.
“The companies and workers that pulled off this amazing accomplishment to build a bridge every two and a half months during construction have our ever-lasting gratitude,” Fleming said. “Now one of the most important trade corridors is better able to withstand future climate events.”
Highway 5 — along with Highway 1 and Highway 8 — suffered extensive damage during a series of atmospheric rivers in 2021 that caused billions of dollars in damage through landslides, flooding and wash-outs. The damages cut off multiple communities and disrupted supply chains, causing gas shortages in some parts of the province. But crews facing difficult conditions helped to reconnect communities with each other and the rest of the province by Christmas 2021.
“The sheer number of people involved in the work to reconnect British Columbians after the storm is nothing short of extraordinary, but it also shows how much damage was done by one large extreme climate weather event,” Fleming said.
He pegged the expected total cost of repairing Highway 5, along with Highway 1 and Highway 8, between $1 to $1.5 billion, adding that B.C.’s disaster financial assistance agreement with the federal government could cover between 70 to 90 per cent of those costs.
“So they are recoverable,” he said.
Fleming added that the costs reflect B.C.’s desire to build a “bigger, stronger, better” highway able to withstand future atmospheric rivers rather than just rebuild the highway to its prior standard. “(Our) new climate reality suggests, we can anticipate even more extreme climate weather-related events.”
He added government has taken proactive steps through the creation of a fund in the last provincial budget to retroactively strengthen the provincial transportation infrastructure “for these kinds of extreme weather events that are going to be more likely in the future.”
He said that ministry is currently assessing vulnerabilities across the province, adding that the province has the necessary resources to move forward with what he called “future-proofing” the provincial infrastructure.
Naturally, that testing for future vulnerabilities also involves keeping an eye on Coquihalla.
“I think the area that gives me the greatest concern is the area where we have put resources and ingenuity toward rebuilding,” Fleming said, when asked which areas give him the greatest when comes to potentially seeing a repeat of the 2021 atmospheric rivers. “Obviously, that vulnerability was proven and the repair work that we have outlined today is something that we can proud of.”
Fleming also used to occasion to reiterate his government’s position on highway-related levies when asked whether government would have any plans to introduce dedicated levies to help pay for climate-change related infrastructure improvements.
“Let me be really clear,” he said. “There are no plans to impose on people who use our highway infrastructure, whether it’s the north, the south, or the Interior. I thought and our government thought it was deeply unfair that certain types of infrastructure upgrades (like the Port Mann Bridge) were subject to tolls…we are not going back to tolls.”
Tolls are geographically unfair and discriminatory, he added.
“We have capacity to build record levels of infrastructure investment,” he said. “We are doing that now. It relates to transit infrastructure, it relates to highway, it relates to road maintenance budgets that have been increasing year after year, throughout our seven years in government and we are going to continue to do that.”