Sweeping skepticism aside, Transportation Minister Mary Polak promised Thursday that widening of the Trans-Canada Highway west of Chase will start this year.
Polak and MLA Terry Lake reiterated a commitment made last fall by Premier Christy Clark as they announced, to a room filled with local politicians, the start of a month of public consultations along the corridor.
The minister was adamant - despite years of promised highway upgrading - that the 10-year, 440-kilometre project is beginning in earnest.
Slow progress on the Monte Creek-to-Pritchard section in the last two years has led some to wonder about the remaining section to Chase, although federal and provincial funding of $160 million is already earmarked for that portion.
Consultations for the 10-year plan begin on Tuesday in the form of a public information session at Hotel 540 from 5 to 8 p.m.
"That didn't get much of an applause," Polak prompted when her announcement met with silence. The audience obliged her.
The minister said she toured the corridor en route to Thursday's announcement.
The increasing economic importance of the corridor to trade and the province as a whole will also drive the project is, she stressed.
"There's no question attention needs to be paid to the Trans-Canada Highway if we're really going to be the Pacific Gateway province," she said. "So we had better make this commitment."
The two-lane stretch of the national highway to the B.C.-Alberta border is longer than two-lane portions remaining between Alberta and Ontario, she noted.
"It's been a long time coming," Lake acknowledged. "And it's great to see it moving forward in a tangible way.
Polak was quick to dispel doubts about the project proceeding, particularly since the government has but three months remaining in its mandate. Trans-Canada widening was promised by the NDP before the party was swept from power in 2001.
"There's one big difference," Polak said. "The projects we have promised to deliver, we delivered. I think you can look at our record."
The new Port Mann Bridge was promised before the 2005 election, she said, and listed other recent major improvments, such as the Kicking Horse Canyon and the South Fraser Perimeter Road.
"None of these projects happened overnight."
The $650-million commitment is made with the expectation that Ottawa will follow through with an equal share, but that remains a question mark, particularly with a soaring federal deficit with reduction targets attached.
"We're talking with them," Polak said. "This is where we have to begin, with the consultation and design. All along we'll work with federal parties."
As well, completion of the Monte Creek to Pritchard stretch awaits an agreement with the Neskonlith Indian Band. First Nations in general are demanding the same agreement be applied all along the corridor.
Polak said the province is working with the band to arrive at an agreement.
"We really do want to do this in partnership with them," she said, adding that the two parties "have come to a good place" in negotiations.
TNRD directors who live along the route were among those applauding.
"I'm hoping there will be a federal contribution to match that," said Ken Gillis, TNRD director for the Pritchard area. "I hope we'll maybe see it go as far as Chase in the first year."
He feels the imminent election will help to hold the government to account. The project is too vitally important not to proceed, he said, underscoring Polak's remarks.
Chase Mayor Ron Anderson sees the same sense of priority. He said he can't imagine any future provincial government standing in the way.
Coun. Pat Wallace remembered the same promise made by a previous government, but is confident the job will get done this time.
"Now they'll start it and cost is always a problem," she said. "It's not that easy to come up with all the cash."
Studies dating back 23 years have pointed to congestion and safety issues along the route. Between 2007 and 2011, there were 76 fatalities and 1,053 injuries on that highway section alone.
Incremental improvements have been made. Since 2001, both senior levels of government have invested $700 million in the highway between Kamloops and Alberta. Work continues on seven projects, including two phases between Pritchard and Hoffman's Bluff.
Yet safety and reliability need to be improved on a route that accounts for two-thirds of the goods exported from B.C.
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Public information sessions for Hwy. 1 improvements:
Kamloops: Tuesday, 5-8 p.m., Hotel 540
Chase: Wednesday, 5-8 p.m., Chase Community Centre
Salmon Arm: Feb. 20, 5-8 p.m., Comfort Inn and Suites
Sicamous: Feb. 21, 5-8 p.m., Sicamous Recreation Centre
Revelstoke: Feb. 26, 5-8 p.m., Revelstoke Community Centre
Golden: Feb. 27, 5-8 p.m., Golden Civic Centre
Community engagement website: www.bchwy1.ca
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