BY PETER CAULFIELD - Work on a project to improve safety on a portion of the Malahat Highway section of the Trans-Canada Highway on Vancouver Island has begun, with tree clearing and excavation underway.
In a May 2014 provincial government announcement, MLA Don McRae said the project will improve safety on a particularly challenging section of the Malahat.
“When (the project) is complete, 50 per cent of the highway will be divided with a barrier,” McRae said.
The Malahat is a 20-kilometre long section of Highway 1 located between the West Shore Parkway and the Bamberton overpass.
The project involves widening the highway and installing 2.3 kilometres of median barrier from Shawnigan Lake Road north to the Malahat Summit, in an area known locally as “NASCAR Corner.”
The work will also include construction of a one-kilometre southbound passing lane extension and improvements to the Whittaker Road and Holker Place intersections.
Dawson Construction Ltd. of Kamloops has been awarded an $8.3 million contract for the work.
Senior estimator and project manager John Brown said this will be Dawson’s first project on the Malahat, although the company recently completed a similar project along the Trans-Canada Highway in Golden, B.C.
“The biggest challenge we expect to face on the project will be to keep the traffic moving,” he said.
“The Trans-Canada Highway on Vancouver Island gets a lot of traffic and most of it is made up of commuters in small vehicles.”
The Malahat is part of the main route between Victoria and the north Island, with more than 22,500 vehicles traveling on it each day.
The NASCAR Corner stretch of the road is locally notorious.
In October 2012, three people died and five others were injured in a head-on crash there.
For years, area residents have been calling for the installation of a concrete centre-line barrier on a stretch of the highway, where two lanes merge into one.
Drivers jockeying for position there earned it the NASCAR Corner moniker.
One of the reasons why driving the Malahat can sometimes be a challenge is its unusual location and its alignment.
The road is constricted by high rock bluffs on the west side and high fill slopes on the east. Its alignment is curvilinear and perched on a plateau above the Saanich Inlet.
The road is primarily a three-lane rural arterial undivided highway that alternates between two northbound/one southbound lanes and one northbound/two southbound lanes.
There are three sections of the Malahat that have a two-lane cross section (i.e. one lane per direction) and one section, which has been upgraded to a four lane facility. The posted speed along the Malahat is 80 km/h, although advisory curve warning signs are located at some horizontal curves.
There are a number of segments of the Malahat that have higher collision rates and collision severity indexes than provincial averages, although the safety record of that part of the road that is being worked on this year is close to or above provincial road safety averages.
Tree clearing and excavation will continue throughout May. Between June and September, crews will be blasting rock to widen the highway.
Then, paving will begin.
“We expect to have the paving done by the end of September,” Brown said.
The median barrier is expected to be installed in the fall. All safety improvements are expected to be completed by spring 2015.
By that time, more than half of the Malahat will have a median barrier.
This year’s Malahat improvement project is not the highway’s first.
In 2013, the provincial government completed $8 million in safety improvements on the road.
These included the installation of 5.4 kilometres of concrete median barriers at four locations along the corridor; the upgrading of three intersections; and the installation of improved lighting, signage and road markings.
A 2012 Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure safety review of the Malahat suggested a number of improvements to the highway.
In addition to the installation of concrete median barriers, it recommended some longer-term improvements.
They include the installation of barriers at other high-priority locations, and intersection improvements at Finlayson Arm and other intersections; and what it called access management strategies, particularly on the section between Summit Lookout and the Rock Cut Viewpoint.