When the province built the William R. Bennett Bridge over Okanagan Lake in 2008, it raised a lot of eyebrows by only building two eastbound lanes.
At the time, Ministry of Highways officials in Victoria argued that given the volume of traffic and its disbursement during the morning rush, only two lanes were needed for vehicles heading into Kelowna from the Westside. Westbound traffic in the afternoon, however, was a different case. The same officials said because rush-hour was busier and happened at approximately the same time for most drivers, three lanes were needed to carry traffic out of Kelowna
But, more important at the time, was the fact one less lane saved the project big bucks.
In making its case for building the new bridge—a replacement for the aging, three-lane, lift-span Okanagan Lake Floating Bridge—the ministry said improvements had to be made to the highway approaches on both sides of the lake as well or it wasn’t worth spending the $122 million on the new bridge.
“We won’t build a new bridge if it’s going to be a parking lot,” one highways official famously said at the time.
Well, that’s exactly what has now happened.
Since late spring, traffic trying to get over the bridge from the Westside during the weekday mornings just grinds to a halt.
The feared “parking lot” has become a reality and a routine part of what is now euphemistically referred to as the morning “rush” from the Westside.
So what is the province doing about that? What any government does when it’s faced with the obvious—and a potentially big bill to fix the problem—it’s studying the issue.
For the last few years the Transportation ministry has been been conducting what it calls a Highway 97 corridor study. The scope is far broader than just the bridge however. It’s looking at what can be done to move traffic better on Highway 97 well away from the bridge.
That, in and of itself, is good. But the pace of study seems slower than the morning traffic it is trying to help.
The loud call for a second crossing of Okanagan Lake seems to have been muted in recent months with the study’s early findings that show only four per cent of traffic crossing Okanagan Lake each day heads for points beyond Kelowna.
But while improvements are no doubt needed at Highway 97 intersections on the Westside, they will do little to alleviate the traffic jams that now form heading into Kelowna each morning. And the traffic jams include both the 96 per cent of traffic that isn’t through traffic, and the four per cent that is.
The bottleneck at the east end of the bridge—where it connects to Harvey Avenue (Highway 97) at Abbott Street—doesn’t help either. But realignment of the road there could help. So could more, and better, transit. But realistically, Central Okanagan drivers are not ready to abandon their vehicles anytime soon, especially those driving into Kelowna from farther afield on the west side.
The bottom line is the brain-trust in Victoria that designed the Bennett Bridge miscalculated by only building two lanes for eastbound traffic. And now local drivers are having to live with that mistake.
Alistair Waters is the assistant editor of the Capital News.