BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Spinning wheels

Columnist Richard Rolke touches on the issue of traffic congestion in Vernon

It’s interesting to note that the Vernon politician pushing for a highway bypass hasn’t actually faced gridlock himself.

Coun. Bob Spiers has never been comfortable behind the wheel of a car so he leaves driving to others. But what Spiers does is walk, and while doing that, he has become extremely aware of the growing traffic problem facing Vernon.

“We are getting more and more traffic right through town. The truckers would prefer not to come right through town,” he said.

Along with those truckers are tourists just passing through as well as local residents on daily errands. As a result, 32nd Street (Highway 97) is virtually clogged from Hospital Hill to the overpass, while 27th Street is bumper-to-bumper at times. Many side roads are also extremely busy as motorists jockey for space.

Concerned that the situation is escalating, Spiers is looking west for the solution.

“It could be a potential long-term bypass,” he said of a route on the west side of Okanagan Lake, whether it is the existing Westside Road or something new between the Okanagan Connector, near Peachland, and O’Keefe Ranch.

Spiers isn’t the first person to suggest this concept but the challenge with a new, high-level highway is that it would be extremely expensive to construct and maintain. Also, while it would divert some through traffic, much of it would likely remain as tourists and commercial trucks  in Kelowna would head this way if going north or east.

As for Westside Road, there probably isn’t enough money in provincial coffers to take the two-lane trail and transform it into something that can accommodate highway volumes. There is also the fact that North Westside residents contend daily with traffic and it’s unlikely they want Vernon’s conditions improved at their expense.

Spiers insists there’s no choice but to look to the other side of the lake because a previous council shelved the designation of a bypass  corridor in Vernon in 2008.

“If we had kept it in the plan, it still would be possible,” he said.

True enough, but the western bypass, as it was known, would have disrupted existing neighbourhoods from Mission Hill to Bella Vista. Life would have never been the same for those residents either displaced by the route or contending with truck noise and changed traffic flow.

What was obvious during the debate five years ago is that any viable transportation alternative is long gone.

Vernon and the rest of the Okanagan have sprawled out too much over the past two decades and carving out a new highway is impossible given the investment made in residential neighbourhoods, businesses and community assets. Nobody wants a freeway next to them.

The time for planning was 30 or 40 years ago when  Okanagan Landing or East Vernon were largely rural and land was relatively inexpensive. Besides Vernon, Kelowna, Westbank, Enderby and virtually every other community in the valley are struggling with the lack of foresight.

Spiers deserves credit for reigniting discussion on the perennial problem of traffic, but no matter which direction you go, there is no easy solution.

The sad reality is that congestion is only going to get worse.

 

Vernon Morning Star

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