Concern over highway expansion in Peachland has once again reared its head, after council got a detailed look at a contentious report on the subject.
At its Sept. 8 Committee of the Whole (COTW) meeting, council heard from Tom Freeman, a Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) representative, who laid out the findings of a long-awaited independent report analyzing the social and economic impacts of highway expansion.
Speaking to the COTW, Freeman echoed the concern of the report’s author that a lack of concrete information “limited” its scope and potential accuracy, but said the report still provides important insight into the impacts of both a highway bypass around town and expansion of the existing highway to four lanes.
The report suggested the major economic impact of a highway bypass would be 21 lost jobs in commercial businesses – mainly centred around the Peachland Village Shopping Centre – as highway traffic is diverted.
Socially, the bypass would likely encourage pedestrians and cyclists to more frequently use the old highway, while a four-lane expansion would create “a barrier across the community.”
Broad comparisons across several social categories – including infrastructure, noise and vibration, land use and community cohesion—showed a favourable impact for a highway bypass. And emergency routes with a bypass would also be improved.
MOTI also considers costs to users of the highway, and according to the report a bypass comes with more costs to motorists.
When council first received the report in July several councillors panned it for what they said were inaccuracies and incorrect assumptions. That opposition was still palpable Sept. 8, as Couns. Terry Condin, Peter Schierbeck and Mike Kent hotly disputed some of the consultant’s findings.
At issue was a chart indicating that an expanded highway would collectively save motorists millions of dollars, while a bypass would collectively cost motorists.
Laying out the numbers, Freeman explained that the consultant used a formula to estimate the long-term cost to people using both a bypass and an expanded highway. Since a bypass would be a longer distance motorists would end up paying more for gas and wear and tear on their cars, among other things.
Condin, a member of the Highway 97 Task Force Society, which lobbies in support of a bypass, was the most outspoken. He challenged the accuracy of the consultant’s numbers, maintaining that the assumptions he based them on were incorrect.
Kent and Schierbeck were similarly concerned.
“It makes no sense and I think these numbers are way off,” Kent told Freeman, saying the consultant’s analysis of traffic flow, the number of intersections and other factors were all wrong.
Over the span of about 20 minutes several councillors reiterated these points, and while Freeman acknowledged the numbers were based on assumptions he maintained they still have value.
“This is something basically I do for a living. I haven’t run the calculations on this, but I’ve basically been involved in every business case that’s been done in the interior for 25 years, so I think when you look at this what to draw away from it is a longer route has more costs to motorists,” he said.
MOTI district manager Murray Tekano was also at the Sept. 8 meeting, and after prompting from Fortin briefly addressed the committee.
He said that MOTI will soon look at Peachland in more detail, and once that happens more comprehensive highway expansion studies will be possible.
“As we move into the planning stages and begin to look at realignment that are alternatives to the highway we’re going to have to go through this in more detail and ask those questions more specifically,” he said.
He pointed out the MOTI is currently in the middle of a three-year transportation planning study for the Central Okanagan, which he said will “impact” Peachland.
Before that, however, the MOTI needs to finalize plans for other projects, such as a defined route for a second crossing from Kelowna to West Kelowna. The study will make that possible, and Peachland is in the “chain of those events.”
In response from Mayor Cindy Fortin’s questions Tekano confirmed that MOTI hasn’t yet explored either a bypass or expansion of the current highway.
Later, during a break, Fortin acknowledged that MOTI’s priorities indicated it would likely be a while before Peachland got concrete information about the ministry’s plans for highway expansion in Peachland.
“Unfortunately, being a little town you get looked at last,” she said.
Trevor Nichols, Regional reporter