Proposed highway upgrades fuel hot debate

A proposed $24 million intersection upgrade to Highway 97 North in Williams Lake continues to be a hot topic.

A proposed $24 million intersection upgrade to Highway 97 North in Williams Lake continues to be a hot topic.

At Tuesday evening’s regular council meeting council heatedly debated two proposed amendments to the project that have resulted after staff viewed an independent road safety audit of the project.

Overall the upgrade would see a new intersection with lights at Toop Road and less access at Carson Drive and city staff said the design has reached 90 per cent completion.

Council considered a staff recommendation to close southbound access to the highway at Western Avenue and Donald Street which was defeated by a tied vote.

Before voting against the closure, Coun. Ivan Bonnell said the ministry had no data showing unsafe incidents at the exit.

“If a safety issue does arise at some time in the future then the council of the day can make changes,” he said. “Right now it’s a benefit to the community at large to leave it open.”

Coun. Sue Zacharias lauded the validity of the safety audit’s recommendations and said the city should support them.

“I cannot believe councillors in all good judgement would disrespect a safety audit. It’s not right,” Zacharias said.

Coun. Danica Hughes reacted to Zacharias’ remark, saying council members are not at the table to correct and clarify each other.

“We are here to present why we are opposed or in favour of a decision and then vote on it and rapport,” Hughes said. “I would like to request that when each of us expresses our opinion it is respected. You don’t have to like it agree with it, but I think the respect needs to be around the table for everybody involved.”

Heated debate is unproductive, Hughes said, adding besides, safety audits are done from the highway’s perspective and she isn’t aware the city  has done anything to determine if Donald Road will be able to handle extra traffic or parking.

The Ministry said Friday the safety audit was done independently by a consultant hired by the ministry to make recommendations, however, the recommendations are not binding.

Now that the recommendation to close southbound access at Western has been turned down, the ministry will continue to work with the city on the project and address safety concerns through this highway corridor.

When asked why the audit suggested the closure, the ministry said     the southbound entry to Highway 97 at Western Avenue does not meet the minimum spacing between intersections on a major highway, even though it is in an urban environment.

“Drivers on Highway 97 are not expecting cars coming onto the highway at that location as they will have just passed through a major intersection,” the ministry said. “In addition, the road will be steeper after construction is completed.”

Another recommendation, to close the Jubilee Place driveway off Carson Drive and relocate the main entrance and reception to the rear of the complex at no cost to the city, was approved.

Coun. Surinderpal Rathor, however, said he was opposed to the closure.

“Moving the office may not be a bad idea, but the traffic that we are going to create in front of the church there is my problem,” he said, adding he felt the project should be taken back one more time to the community for input.

The safety audit determined leaving a right in entrance into Jubilee Place off Carson would be a danger, Zacharias said.

“Jubilee is fine with moving their office because they are only moving furniture, not having to build or do anything else,” she added. “I haven’t had any phone calls or letters, which I have had prior to the safety audit.”

Coun. Geoff Bourdon said while he understood it’s hard to make decisions that will have wide impacts for the community, he could easily stand behind the safety audit’s recommendations.

The motion was carried by Bonnell, Bourdon, Zacharias and Kerry Cook voting in favour, while Hughes and Rathor opposed. Coun. Laurie Walters was absent.

In two weeks council will meet with the ministry to have a detailed discussion about the cost sharing agreement on the entire project, chief administrative officer Darrell Garceau said.