The traffic safety and community planning impact of Highway 97 in Peachland will continue to be a constant point of debate, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, says the president of the Highway 97 Task Force Society.
Gus Richardson said his reaction was one of disappointment when regional Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure officials revealed to Peachland council last week the decision to delay further planning on a long-term solution to the Highway 97 upgrade options for 20 years.
“This issue has been worked on going back to the 1980s and we still don’t have some kind of plan move forward,” Richardson said.
“On the other hand, we weren’t happy with the long-term options suggested by the ministry so it’s not without some degree of relief we have another 20 years to hopefully make our influence be heard.”
Richardson said the society believes a majority of Peachlanders want a bypass route alternative pursued, so the idea of four-lane improvements to the existing Highway 97 route through the heart of the community as a suggested option was not well received.
“We feel (the bypass) is the best thing for Peachland from our community’s perspective. Other communities that have had bypasses done have flourished, and we would hope the same for our community. It would help make Peachland more of a destination point rather than a place people drive past on their way to somewhere else.”
Ted Cave, who for a time was involved with the task force, said most residents realize a long-term solution would be costly and take potentially years to assemble, but what he was hoping for from the ministry was a decision on that route option.
“It’s a planning thing. Nobody knows what to expect. If you are planning a housing project near the current highway, and how many other development options, you are hesitant to go forward-thinking in 20 years there might be four-lane highway traffic roaring past a given project,” Cave said.
Cave called the ongoing studies and community surveys a “colossal waste of money” since they haven’t arrived at any conclusions.
“We have spent several million dollars over the years to get back to the same point we started with,” he said.
Cave said he has learned a lot from talking with highways engineers and staff about Highway 97 upgrade options and understanding traffic flows.
“But I am less appreciative of how the public relations side of this has been handled over the years,” he added.
The ministry is currently in the midst of unveiling a major online public communication initiative to generate feedback on Highway 97 suggested short- and long-term options.
A public engagement website was launched Aug. 12 and will continue until Sept. 4.
Because of COVID-19 public health issues, the ministry is unable to hold public forums on the Peachland Transportation Study. Comments or more information can be obtained from the study project team by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The presentation to Peachland council last Tuesday (Aug. 11) was greeted with disappointment by Mayor Cindy Fortin and the councillors.
Fortin called the decision “a tough one to swallow” given the work already done in the planning process combined with the importance of upgrading the Highway 97 corridor to Peachland’s future economic development.
Steve Sirett, regional highways manager, told council the long-term solution delay was based on current traffic volumes along with several short- and medium-term intersection improvements to improve the safety of highway intersections in Peachland.
He noted in particular approval for the design process to proceed for upgrading the Trepanier Bench Road intersection, which will lead to a likely project cost estimate within about a year, to be followed by seeking provincial funding.
“Trepanier Road is a priority…we heard that loud and clear. Approval for the design process to make that project tender-ready will lead to another step of getting funding approval, but it is a good step forward,” Sirett said.
But councillors were unhappy about what they feel are short-term fixes to traffic congestion and safety problem posed by Highway 97 traffic through the district that requires a longer-term alternative.
“I am very disappointed to hear we are not coming out of this with a definitive (long-term) recommendation,” said Coun. Keith Fielding. “It paralyzes our capacity as a community to plan ahead going forward.”
Coun. Mike Kent said the decision will have a profound negative impact on Peachland’s ability to plan future economic development.
“As a council member, I feel that deferring this decision another 20 years is not acceptable,” Kent said.
“We will be hamstrung when it comes to development…I think the importance of this is not being communicated effectively to those in the decision-making process.”
Sirett said planning decisions can proceed based on the current status of the highway, as many changes could impact what is required for Highway 97 upgrades 20 years from now.
“It is a challenge and I appreciate that, but our decision is based on traffic volume elements, and what issues we are looking at 20 years from now may be different than what we think about now,” he added.
“Part of that is how the community redevelops over those next 20 years. It could be we have to look at this a lot sooner than 20 years depending on how the community changes and grows.”