The four hours it took to establish a detour route around the Columbia Fuels truck crash that closed the Malahat Drive last April was unacceptably long, according to an internal audit by the Ministry of Transportation.
Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Blair Lekstrom ordered the review after the Trans-Canada Highway closure, which was initially estimated to last four hours, ended up shutting down southern Vancouver Island’s main north-south artery for 22 hours.
Released today, the 21-page report said ministry communication with the public during the closure — made solely through updates on the DriveBC website — was insufficient to help drivers make informed route choices.
“When there’s a lack of communication, people don’t know what decision to make,” the minister said, stressing that while length of the closure couldn’t be helped, the estimates for re-opening the route could have been better.
“They (drivers) would rather know, ‘this is an uncertain incident, the time frame could vary to a great degree,’ at which point I think the travelling public would have made the decision (to take an alternate route),” Lekstrom said.
The Columbia Fuels b-train truck hit a rock wall near Goldstream Provincial Park the evening of Saturday, April 16, spilling about 42,000 liters of gasoline and 600 litres of diesel fuel into Goldstream River. RCMP continue to investigate if the driver was intoxicated.
The minister said the main detour through Langford and into Highlands along Finlayson Arm Road should have been ready with a pilot car to safely lead a single lane of traffic within 90 minutes. In the meantime the public should have been made aware of other alternatives, he said, including the three-hour Pacific Marine Circle Route through Port Renfrew and the ferry at Mill Bay.
The report also suggest drivers could take the ferry from Crofton to Salt Spring Island and catch a second ship to Swartz Bay, or vice versa, to bypass the incident. When asked if the ministry would contract a ferry to run directly between Nanaimo and Victoria during a highways closure, Lekstrom said he’d consider it.
If passenger cars were running on the E&N rail line, that may have also offered a route for travellers to bypass the highway, but Lekstrom said he didn’t think that would have made much difference in clearing traffic from the road in this incident.
Juan de Fuca NDP MLA John Horgan disagreed. He was among those interviewed for the report and said although he tried to bring up issues around rail and other possible routes, those suggestions didn’t make the final draft.
“I had people from the Cowichan Valley tell me they missed medical appointments in Victoria because of the closure,” Horgan said. “If the rail had been there, it would have been an option for people to get here without using their car.”
He also suggested, in the long term, that a new alternative route could be established following existing logging roads through Shawnigam Lake to Sooke. The report didn’t investigate or recommend any route improvements.
“This hasn’t brought forwards a rush that I have to, as a minister, find additional revenues to invest in this,” Lekstrom said during a conference call with media Thursday.
The report’s eight recommendations, which the minister said will be implemented, focus on improving communication procedures. It’s recommended, for example, that more traffic control personnel be on the road to relay messages to people waiting in traffic queues, particularly when the closure is longer then 60 minutes.
It also advised the ministry response team undertake additional training on how to correctly set up a command centre that relays accurate information to the public through the DriveBC website and other means.
Horgan said the recommendations fall short of offering any real solution and called the report a waste of time.
“All it says is that the road was closed and the ministry communicated poorly. We knew that before they ordered the report,” Horgan said. “When people are stuck in traffic, they don’t want more communication to know when the road is opening, they want a way to get around the problem.”
After the fuel truck crashed just south of the Goldstream River Park entrance at 6 p.m., the first notice went online an hour later advising the road would be open in four hours and that no detour route was available.
But some drivers with knowledge of the area had already diverted to Finlayson Arm Road, a narrow rural road through Highlands that has many steep turns with limited visibility. Realizing vehicles were overloading the route, RCMP blocked it until a pilot car could be arranged to lead through single rows of traffic. This was finally available at 10 p.m., by which time the estimated closure had been revised and the new estimated opening was 1 a.m.
Within 30 minutes of the detour opening, most of the traffic waiting on the highway cleared. The only drivers still waiting were those in large vehicles that couldn’t safely drive the road and a dozen or so small vehicles that chose not to take the detour.
Overnight, the ministry estimated the road would opening at 4 a.m., then 9 a.m. and in the morning it was pushed to noon. Heavy morning traffic at 7 a.m. overwhelmed the Finlayson Arm detour and the ministry updated its advisory asking that only essential vehicles take that route. The Mill Bay ferry was suggested as an alternative.
The closure estimate was revised four more times between 9 a.m. and when the road was finally cleared at 4 p.m. There were also notices on Drive BC saying a short, single lane opening through the site would be allowed to let commercial vehicles pass, however that never materialized.