UPDATED: Tofino-Ucluelet highway reopens after bridge installed earlier than expected

”Bridge crews worked throughout the day to install a pre-fabricated 20-metre single-lane bridge.”

The road connecting Tofino-Ucluelet to the rest of Vancouver Island reopened Saturday night after a bridge was installed quicker than anticipated.

“Specialized bridge crews worked throughout the day to install a pre-fabricated 20-metre single-lane bridge,” read a statement from B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation Saturday evening. “Installation of the bridge was quicker than expected because bedrock was deeper than expected. This allowed for the bridge to be inset into the road grade, rather than above it, which would have required a substantial amount of approach ramp work. Construction time was also reduced by bringing in additional bridge crews and equipment.”

The highway is now open to all vehicles, including delivery trucks and RVs that had not been able to pass through two “essential travel only” windows on Friday and Saturday.

The highway was open passenger vehicles and light pickup trucks on Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon and the highway was expected to be closed for a minimum of 24 hours afterwards as crews installed the bridge.

“Once these smaller vehicles have cleared at noon, Saturday, work will begin on placement of a pre-fabricated 20-metre single-lane bridge at the site. A specialized bridge crew will be working day and night to complete the install. Work will be challenging as the bridge is being placed in a narrow space between the rock bluff and Kennedy Lake,” read a statement from B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure late Friday night.

Drivers trying to get through Saturday’s temporary opening were screened at either side of the closure at the Tofino-Ucluelet junction and at Sproat Lake where vehicles deemed to large to pass over the highway were turned around.

“Drivers need to obey the instructions of traffic control personnel,” the ministry warned.

While commuters were able to get through the temporary openings over the weekend, larger delivery trucks had been blocked from the West Coast for roughly three days after a rockfall forced the highway to close in the early morning hours of Jan 23.

READ MORE: Ucluelet and Tofino mayors call for “calmness” and “empathy” as highway closure cuts communities off from supplies

The incident was caused by scheduling blasting work being conducted in the early morning hours of Jan. 23 as part of the provincial and federal governments’ joint $38 million Kennedy Hill Safety Improvement project aimed at boosting driver safety along a particularly tough to navigate 1.5 kilometre stretch of the highway roughly 15 kilometres from the Tofino-Ucluelet junction.

The project is expected to be completed in the summer of 2020, though the ministry says crews are currently assessing how to continue their work with the new bridge in place.

READ MORE: VIDEO: Highway closures hit travellers heading in and out of Tofino and Ucluelet

“The blast was done in a controlled manner with Traffic Control personnel in place. The road was closed to traffic at the time,” said a BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure spokesperson. “The contractor was following an approved plan for the blast, but larger than anticipated rockfall resulted in a portion of the road being impacted making it unsafe for the ministry to open the highway at this time.”

DriveBC first reported that a “major road failure” had closed the road through Twitter at 7:09 a.m. on Thursday and crews had initially hoped to have the highway open by 5 p.m. that day, however a geotechnical assessment of the site quickly quashed that timeline and the road remained closed Friday morning.

“A portion of the shoulder and travelling surface has sloughed away. The contractor needs to build that area back up to highway grade before the road can reopen. At present, the contractor is placing approximately 15 dump trucks of fill an hour to build up the base,” the ministry said through a statement late Thursday evening.

The ministry said construction crews worked “non-stop” throughout Thursday night and Friday morning to repair the road.

“The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure thanks Emil Anderson Construction and its crew for the round-the-clock effort to reopen the highway,” the statement reads. “While some progress was made, the base wasn’t building as quickly as project engineers had estimated. Overnight, the decision was made to bridge the damaged section of highway to open it as soon as possible.”

READ MORE: VIDEO: Drone footage shows extent of damage in Highway 4 rockslide

The ministry assured that emergency vehicles would be able to pass through the site if needed.

Ucluelet’s fire chief Rick Geddes said he has been in frequent contact with the ministry and has reached out to the Port Alberni and Beaver Creek fire crews for assistance while the road is being repaired.

“Between the two of those fire departments, they’re basically looking after anything on the other side of Kennedy Lake for us until this issue is resolved…We can’t get a fire truck out there right now. It’s limited to small vehicles,” he said. “We have a really good working agreement with the Port Alberni Fire Department, so one of the first things I did Friday morning was get a hold of them and ask if they had an ability to cover road rescue up to the east side of Kennedy Lake for us.”

The closure locked Ucluelet resident Jess Arthurs out of her hometown and away from her 10-year-old son as well as her dog.

Arthurs told the Westerly News on Friday morning that she had been in Victoria and planned to return to Ucluelet at 3 p.m. Thursday, but the closure nixed that idea and she fortunately found friends to stay with in Nanaimo while she waits for the road to reopen.

“It isn’t very convenient to be stuck away from home. My son is there and concerned when I’ll make it back and our dog has to be farmed out. Plus, I am missing work and having to cancel clients,” she said.

She added, though, that the crews working at the site deserve the West Coast’s support.

“Imagine what the workers are up against and all of the pressure on them day to day, night after night, long hours in the sideways rain and people constantly being upset with them because they need to be somewhere,” she said. “We are all aware that these situations were a possibility. I find the situation worse for the workers to be honest. Each time I travel back from being out of town, I bring them snacks as a thank you. Even though our communities are feeling the frustration, these growing pains of the construction will be over soon and loved and appreciated someday, so hang in there.”

Pacific Coastal Airlines scheduled a special Saturday flight between Tofino and Vancouver to assist any tourists or residents stranded by closure.

“While the road will open for a brief period this afternoon, traffic will be limited to essential travel only. This means that local residents and tourists may have to wait to travel until repair of the damaged section is completed,” the company said through a statement released Friday.

The airline runs regularly scheduled flights between Vancouver and Tofino, but does not usually offer Saturday flights during the winter months.

“We’re pleased to step up to assist the people in these communities by adding a flight on Saturday, January 25”, said the airline’s corporate communications and public affairs director Kevin Boothroyd. “In doing so, we hope to relieve some of the backlog of passengers attempting to get in or out of the communities.”

READ MORE: Pacific Coastal Airlines adds daily flight to Tofino

The airline also planned to reach out to the Tofino General Hospital to determine if any cargo services are needed for essential medicine or medical supplies.

Parks Canada also stepped up to assist those trapped by the closure and has prepared two emergency support hubs in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve between Tofino and Ucluelet for travellers unable to get home.

The Combers Beach parking lot was available for all semi-trailer trucks and the Green Point Campground, including its adjacent washroom facilities, was open to all recreational vehicles and campers.

The Park Reserve advised anyone who had planned to visit over the weekend to postpone their trip.



andrew.bailey@westerlynews.ca

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READ MORE: Rock blasting debris shuts down highway between Tofino-Ucluelet and rest of Vancouver Island

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