Blog Sea-to-Sky Highway Under The Microscope

A major rock slide that last week temporarily closed the lovely but long-treacherous Sea-to-Sky Highway between Whistler, B.C. and the Vancouver metro region has some critics asserting the province should’ve built a new inland route instead of undertaking the current, $600 million public-private upgrade of the road (pictured below, right). The project is overseen by Partnerships BC, and is to be completed in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler. Supporting the inland route concept – a few years and apparently a few billion dollars short – is the inevitable retired engineer attendant to every transportation debate. See “Other Possibilities” at bottom of this Globe and Mail report.
Sea-to-Sky gets a lot of flack, of which the route second-guessing is just the latest bit, and it’s all off-base, writes political correspondent Keith Baldry today in the North Shore News.

…the huge slide on the Sea to Sky Highway….revived talk about the wisdom of spending so much money on that treacherous stretch of road or, alternatively, why we weren’t spending even more to build an alternative route. I get tired of hearing people who don’t use that highway refer to it as the “millionaire’s highway” to Whistler, as if improving it only benefits the wealthy landowners in that resort.
What nonsense. First of all, those people conveniently forget that between West Vancouver and Whistler is the more populous town of Squamish, from which many residents actually commute to the Lower Mainland. As well, Whistler is a huge contributor to the B.C. economy, generating about $1 billion a year in economic activity and attracting more foreign visitors (who spend a lot of money here) than any other resort in the province.
So quit whining about spending money on improving that highway. It benefits the entire province. And as for complaining there isn’t an alternative route — forget it. The minimum cost for another inland road is at least $3 billion (more than four times what we’re spending on the Sea-to-Sky upgrade).

Baldry puts things properly in context. But going forward toward the 2010 Olympics, there have to be heightened concerns based on history and geology that even after safety improvements from the current roadway project are completed, slides could still occur on the Sea-to-Sky. Despite a perhaps reasonable degree of fatalism about Mother Nature’s power and unpredictability, it’d still be wise for the province to evaluate claims now surfacing about new rock slide prevention technology. The Globe and Mail reports:

University of British Columbia geological engineer Erik Eberhardt said researchers are developing new ways to detect when a weakening plane of rock is about to shatter and plunge off a cliff, but they can be expensive. For several thousand dollars, engineers can install global positioning receivers that monitor for tiny physical movements. For tens of thousands, emerging satellite technology would do sweeping scans of large areas such as the Sea-to-Sky highway and identify problematic spots. New microseismic sensors could “hear” the infinitesimal sounds of two rock planes moving against each other – similar to technology used to detect earthquakes, but on a far more minute level.
One Vancouver-based company thinks it has the microseismic technology the Sea-to-Sky highway needs. Tex Enemark is communications director for Weir-Jones Group, which manufactures sensory devices to monitor sites such as rail beds for geological activity. He said the company’s sensitive “geophones” can detect a shift between planes of rock a month before a slide occurs. “There is noise emitted as the seal [between two planes] breaks, and once it starts … it becomes more detectable and noisier, for want of a better phrase, so by monitoring this through a sophisticated electrical filter, you can tell when something is about to happen.” The system is pricey, however: Mr. Enemark said a sensor covering a 300-metre span of rock face would cost upward of $300,000.

If the technology really is feasible, a better advance-warning system of rock slide possibilities on the Sea-to-Sky – and other mountainous highways in the Northwest – would be helpful. And that’s putting it mildly.