OPINION: Reading the Highway 1 tea leaves

Variable speed project between Chilliwack & Abbotsford suggests widening to Langley still possible

Let’s talk about everyone’s favourite subject: Highway 1.

The basics are well known at this point. Local politicians want Highway 1 widened, as do seemingly most drivers. Only two of nearly two dozen council and mayor candidates last fall dared to say otherwise. But the provincial NDP government has shown less enthusiasm for the project than did the BC Liberals. Basically, when asked, the province keeps saying, “We’re thinking about the highway.”

The NDP certainly seems more inclined towards the transit infrastructure projects favoured by urbanists who say a wider highway will just eventually clog up with more cars.

It’s natural to think that highway widening is actually off the table, but that the government just doesn’t want to say that lest it make a whole bunch of people mad. Parents know this trick. If you don’t want to spark a tantrum, you just say “maybe” to your kid’s request for chocolate-coated sugar cubes in the hopes that they will forget about the request or just pass out in the car. (They never forget about the chocolate-coated sugar cubes.)

But then: What should we make of the highway work between Chilliwack and Abbotsford?

Construction continues on a $25 million “variable speed system” project. Soon, the speed limit on the stretch of road will vary depending on congestion levels. It’s hoped that lowering limits when congestion is high or when traffic is stopped ahead will help prevent rear-end crashes that can clog up the highway and may forestall closures like that which took place on Sunday during the snowfall.

(It boggles the mind a little that the project costs as much as it does, but I guess that’s the price of progress these days.)

Here’s the thing that sticks out to me, though: Traffic isn’t really that bad on that stretch of road. I drive the highway daily and rarely does the length of my commute vary by more than a minute or two. The worst traffic usually travels no slower than 80 km/h.

It could be better, yes. But it also seems like a variable speed system would be far more useful between Abbotsford and Langley, where highway speeds do vary considerably.

So why is the system not being implemented there?

I put the question to the government and received a typical government response. They said a study showed the system would help alleviate traffic between Abbotsford and Chilliwack. As for the Langley-to-Abbotsford stretch, the government is “looking at the corridor as a whole and looking at the best way to further cut down on congestion and increase safety.”

“But wait!” you say. “That doesn’t really answer why the system that you say is going to work so well between Abbotsford and Chilliwack wouldn’t also be a tremendous help farther west.”

Yes, that’s how government replies to questions.

Anyway, I got my hands on the government study in question, and it clearly didn’t really consider the Langley-Abbotsford corridor for such a system.

Why?

Well, since the government isn’t really going to give us an answer, we can only speculate. It seems possible that the government isn’t implementing the system west of Abbotsford because larger plans are being considered.

It would be a waste of money to spend tens of millions of dollars installing a high-tech sign system only to have to rip them out of the ground to widen the highway (or build transit down the median).

The flip side of this is that spending all that money between Abbotsford and Chilliwack probably means that widening that stretch of highway isn’t in the government’s plans.

Combine those two sentences, though, and one also glimpses a possibility that many would consider the worst of both worlds: that the NDP will be hesitant to install a variable speed system between Langley and Abbotsford because doing so would be an admission that highway widening isn’t coming.

– Tyler Olsen is a reporter at the Abbotsford News.


@ty_olsen
tolsen@abbynews.com

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