YOHO – Two head-on collisions resulting in the death of two people in the past three weeks have renewed calls for a 40-kilometre stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway through Yoho National Park to be twinned.
A 31-year-old Alberta man died following a two-vehicle collision about 17 kilometres west of Field on July 2. On June 15, a head-on crash between a logging truck and SUV one kilometre west of Field left one man dead and sent another to a Calgary hospital via STARS air ambulance.
The retired head of Parks Canada’s highway services centre in the parks for about 20 years, Terry McGuire, said the human and wildlife toll will continue to grow until the last 40 kilometres between Sherbrooke Creek and western border of Yoho is twinned from the current undivided two-lane highway.
He said the twinning of the first six kilometres in the park, along with wildlife exclusion fencing and wildlife crossings, was completed in 2018, as was the preliminary design for the remaining 40-km section, known as phase IVB.
“Since then, little progress on advancing construction has been made,” said McGuire, who was also Parks Canada’s Trans-Canada Highway twinning project director and Yoho highway twinning field unit advisor from 2016 to 2020.
“Unfortunately, the further away from Ottawa and in areas of lesser population, i.e. votes, the less pressing the issue becomes warranting a shrug and an acceptance of what is totally preventable tragedies.”
On July 2, at 1 p.m., the 31-year-old driver of an automobile died at the scene after a head-on crash with a semi-truck on the undivided two-lane stretch of highway in Yoho National Park, approximately 17 km west of Field. The semi-truck driver was uninjured in the crash.
Golden-Field RCMP say evidence suggested that the driver of the automobile was heading westbound on the highway when he drifted into oncoming traffic and collided head-on with the semi-truck, whose driver swerved into the eastbound ditch in an attempt to avoid the collision.
Hundreds of motorists were delayed for up to five hours on the Canada Day long weekend while the investigation was being conducted by B.C.’s Integrated Collision Analysis and Reconstruction Service in conjunction with the BC Coroners Service.
“First and foremost, we and our partners extend our sincere condolences to the family and friends of the deceased party,” said Constable Kat Robinson with Golden-Field RCMP in a statement.
“We would also like to thank the citizens who were first on scene, who helped those involved in the motor vehicle incident, and who stayed to help emergency crews as they arrived – you were vital in today’s incident.”
About two weeks earlier, more than 50 emergency response personnel attended the scene of a fatal head-on collision near the highway’s intersection at Emerald Lake Road just west of Field.
The driver of an SUV did not survive and the driver of the logging truck was flown to hospital in Calgary by STARS air ambulance with non-life threatening injuries. The highway was closed for several hours.
RCMP say initial evidence gathered at the scene as part of their investigation indicated that the eastbound SUV crossed the centre line and crashed head-on with a logging truck coming from the opposite direction.
Following the impact, the tractor-trailer rolled down a steep embankment by the fast-flowing Kicking Horse River and caught on fire. The front part of the cab of the logging truck landed in the river, but the driver was able to get out.
A spokesperson for Parks Canada said consultation on the draft detailed impact assessment for twinning the remaining 40 kilometres of the highway took place in 2020 and 2021 – but there’s no funding yet from the federal government.
The assessment, combined with public feedback and consultation with Indigenous groups, informed the park superintendent’s decision that the project may proceed when funding becomes available.
“There are currently no funds for construction,” said Amy Krause, a spokesperson for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay field unit.
Parks Canada’s data for traffic volumes entering Yoho National Park shows that daily traffic volumes average nearly 7,500 vehicles per day. Traffic volumes peak in July and August, when between 10,000 and 15,000 daily vehicle trips are made to the park. The forecast is summer volumes will exceed 23,000 per day by 2046.
According to the project overview, there were 234 collisions, including 132 injuries and five fatalities between 2012 and 2016. The Outlook could not obtain updated statistics before deadline.
According to Parks Canada’s impact assessment, the Trans-Canada through Yoho currently has a higher accident rate than average for similar highways in B.C.
It states the forecast growth in traffic will contribute to an increase in motor vehicle accidents.
“The collision rate for Yoho National Park is 22 per cent higher than the B.C. highway average,” said McGuire.
McGuire said that apart from addressing traffic safety and wildlife mortality, twinning also carries added benefits of addressing aquatic issues and designing highway infrastructure such as culverts and bridges to handle extreme weather events triggered by climate change.
“While the focus on vehicle-wildlife collisions with charismatic species such as grizzlies, black bears, along with temporary unsustainable prevention measures is an important topic, the reality is that twinning has only really occurred when human fatalities reach a threshold that creates public concern and demand that government takes action,” he said.
Twinning of the Trans-Canada Highway started in Banff National Park at the east gate in the early 1980s in response to both traffic delays at the old Minnewanka intersection and wildlife mortality, especially elk, that led to its moniker as the ‘meat grinder’.
McGuire said it took almost 30 years to see the completion of 82 km of highway twinning to the Banff/Yoho border, each phase needing to await traffic volumes and subsequent fatalities or injuries of both motorists and wildlife to trigger public concern and funding for construction.
“Instead of being ahead of the curve, it was always in a catch-up mode to address what was known that would happen,” said McGuire, who retired in 2010 from his Parks Canada highway position before coming back on a part-time basis for the Yoho twinning from 2015-20.
Twinning of the highway through Banff showed a six-fold reduction in the fatal collision rate by reducing head-on collisions.
Wildlife mortality data from 1980 until the 2010s indicate that ungulates accounted for the largest proportion of road-related wildlife mortalities, about 1,500, followed by large carnivores, about 200, of which the highest proportion are black bears and wolves.
The twinning of the highway through Banff National Park, with appropriate wildlife mitigations like fences, underpasses and overpasses, has shown an almost 95 per cent reduction in wildlife-vehicle collisions with ungulates and about 80 per cent reduction for all species.
“The fence was never designed to be 100 per cent impenetrable,” said McGuire.
McGuire said he estimated the cost of twinning the remaining 40 km of the highway through Yoho, with proposed fencing and wildlife overpasses and underpasses, at more than half a billion dollars back in 2018.
He said based on the cost of a provincial wildlife overpass at Exshaw and the impact of inflation on fuel, material supply, delivery issues and manpower shortages caused by COVID-19, along with the number of construction projects on the books, the price is skyrocketed.
“Depending on when construction occurs and over what timeframe, Yoho TCH twinning could easily exceed three-quarters of a billion,” McGuire said.