Island Rail Corridor – not just the highway or my way

The BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure released a report dated March 2020 on the state of the Vancouver Island Rail Corridor and its potential for development. All eyes fell on the highest estimate for completing the entire project. Is now the time to consider thinking outside the box? The following submission from Errol Miller may stoke some creative thinking. Editor

It was a nightmare crawling over the Malahat, trying to get to Victoria on that August long weekend. Then another accident, and another tragic fatality preventing cars from crossing over the Malahat, both ways. No detour available.

Every time there is an accident on the Malahat, ideas for an escape route abound. So far the solution has been to widen portions of the highway and put in abatement barriers in an attempt to eliminate accidents. But that only solves part of the problem we face when travelling up and down Island.

So Islanders are once again proposing suggestions for preventing congestion on the Malahat. Will the government again promise to widen another section of the road so that it appears that they care and are doing something? Are there other options to safely and efficiently travel up and down the Island?

Premier Horgan once mused that a bridge from Mill Bay to North Saanich would be a better solution than the E&N Railway as an alternate route to Highway 1 over the Malahat. That was a bridge too far, and quickly fell from consideration. After paying for feasibility studies, environmental studies and interchanges on both sides, building a bridge across Saanich Inlet, widening secondary roads and purchasing land, we would have been left with the Pat Bay Highway being more crowded or West Saanich Road being straightened out and widened – but only after successfully convincing three First Nations that this would be in their best interest. It was a non-starter.

Train station located in the heart of Qualicum Beach

Horgan and others have suggested replacing the Brentwood – Mill Bay ferry with a ship of larger capacity or building another ferry route between Cowichan Bay and the Patricia Bay float dock on the Saanich Peninsula. These alternatives would require also replacing the docking and loading infrastructure at both ends to accommodate the larger ferry. Would the streets in Brentwood or Cowichan Bay be able to handle the increased traffic when a ferry lands? Doubtful. Those vehicles would then have to use West Saanich Road or any of the cross-peninsula roads that were not designed to handle heavy traffic safely.

What is the real problem with the Malahat? There is too great a dependency on cars to move people from the North Island to the South Island.

We could spend more millions on widening the highway to four lanes so that a dozen or so times out of the 365 days during the year when the traffic is very heavy, nobody would be inconvenienced. However that would not be money well spent. If you observe traffic in our cities, there are three times when traffic is bunched up: morning, noon and late afternoon, perhaps six hours out of the day. The rest of the time traffic flows easily. There are many hours when there is very little traffic  (10 p.m. to 7 a.m., especially on Sundays), when the street is wider than necessary. The same would be true of a four lane Malahat Drive.

The most economical long term solution would be to diversify the means available to go over and around the Malahat.

I suggest four means of diversification, not including passenger cars: reactivate the E&N, replace the Mill Bay Ferry with one that can carry buses, increase the number of bus trips between Duncan and Langford, and a rush hour ferry from Departure Bay or Duke Point to Swartz Bay and back.

A regular bus trip with more runs during rush hours at an affordable fare will eventually draw a lot of drivers from their cars. A regularly scheduled train on the E&N route will similarly offer a reasonable alternative to a car. An added benefit of the train is that more cars can be added for peak demand (especially when the Malahat is blocked) without needing more operators.

A bus-carrying ferry at Mill Bay would bypass the Malahat with the added benefit of  delivering passengers who might want to go to the airport or to Sidney or to Butchart Gardens, directly to the peninsula. A car ferry from the Nanaimo area two or three times a day would reduce the traffic load on the Malahat considerably and provide an alternative for those times when the Drive is blocked by an accident.

Making changes to the Malahat with the purpose of making it easier for cars to use is a waste of money. We know that the result will be: more people will be encouraged to use it by driving, thus increasing the traffic load. What is necessary and efficient is to diversify the means by which Islanders can get around, making the car just one of five possibilities.

Yes public transit is expensive but so is providing a long strip of pavement over the mountain for the car that only has a single occupant.  Some changes should be made to the Malahat Drive to make it safer but just widening it and removing curves is not practical or necessary. Most accidents are the result of driver error, especially speeding; widening the road only encourages more speed.

Cars, buses, trains all have their places in moving people on the ground. Let’s stop thinking that cars are the only or best alternative. Very often the car is the most expensive and most dangerous of the three.