B.C.’s top news stories of 2022: Rebuilding damaged highways

Crews working on Highway 8 in August 2022, months after catastrophic rain and flooding wiped out sections of the highway in November 2021. Ministry of Transportation

For the past year, an engineering marvel has slowly been grinding away across southern British Columbia.

When catastrophic flooding in November 2021 wreaked havoc and wiped out sections of several highways, the stunning damage reminded the public of just how important pavement is to today’s society.

For example, when the Lower Mainland was temporarily cut off because of highway closures, gasoline rationing was implemented for a short term.

Enter a small army of work crews who chipped away, day by day, in heat, rain or snow, repairing those damaged sections and restoring the movement of transportation.

That work is so important that it’s one of B.C.’s top news stories of the year.

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The work continues, and, last month, the province said an estimated $240 million had been spent so far on repair work, adding that the total bill could exceed $1 billion.

“This extreme weather event closed 10 stretches of key highways, including every major route connecting the Lower Mainland and its ports to the rest of Canada, plus multiple sideroads,” said the Ministry of Transportation.

Click to play video: 'Flooding, slides force major B.C. highway closures'
Flooding, slides force major B.C. highway closures

“Major bridges were destroyed and whole sections of highways slumped into rivers. Long stretches of highways 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 11, 99 were cut off, as were numerous sideroads, stranding tens of thousands of people, damaging homes, endangering huge numbers of livestock, and halting the movement of citizens and billions of dollars in goods and services.

“Countless Indigenous and rural communities and many municipalities experienced record-setting flooding and loss of property, livestock, and livelihoods.”

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The ministry says it partnered with other provincial ministries, road builders, engineers, geoscientists, local governments, law enforcement agencies and the army to get the repair ball rolling.

Click to play video: 'B.C.’s Coquihalla Highway seen from the air shows extent of the damage'
B.C.’s Coquihalla Highway seen from the air shows extent of the damage

More than 300 sites needed work, and more than 600 people and 400 pieces of heavy equipment were brought in as a response.

“Hundreds of engineers, environmental and archeological monitors, project managers and construction personnel with thousands of pieces of equipment worked 24/7 in synchronicity,” said the ministry.

The Trans-Canada Highway in the Lower Mainland was reopened three weeks after the flooding, with the Coquihalla reopening in late December 2021.

However, both of those reopenings were only partial, with plenty of work still needed to be done.

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“The priority was restoring emergency vehicle access and supply chains and access for public health and other support services,” the ministry said of those early repair days, adding hundreds of vehicles stuck between mudslides were freed within a few days of the event.

And as if the work wasn’t enough, crews had to deal with changing weather and COVID-19 variants.

“One night on the Coquihalla during emergency restoration work, more than 45 cm of snow fell, meaning crews had to switch to snow removal and site clean-up,” said the ministry.

Click to play video: 'B.C. floods: Coquihalla Highway scope of work and repair timeline'
B.C. floods: Coquihalla Highway scope of work and repair timeline

Below are some quick facts regarding the damaged highways.

Highway 1

  • Flooding and washouts damaged 18 sites between Hope and Spences Bridge.
  • Damaged were two bridges, a CP Rail underpass, two major culverts and 13 additional washouts.
  • More than 150 workers using 80 pieces of equipment moved more than 150,000 cubic metres of gravel, rock and other material to repair and reopen Highway 1 to vehicle traffic on Jan 14th, 2022 (Lytton to Spences Bridge) and Jan 24th, 2022 (Lytton to Boston Bar).

Highway 5

  • Flooding and washouts damaged more than 20 sites along 130 kilometres of the Coquihalla between Hope and Merritt.
  • This included seven bridges where spans collapsed or were otherwise heavily damaged.
  • More than 300 workers using 200 pieces of equipment moved more than 400,000 cubic metres of gravel, rock and other material to repair and reopen the Coquihalla.
  • The highway was reopened to commercial traffic in 35 days, on Dec. 20, 2021, and to all traffic on Jan. 19, 2022.

Highway 8

  • The highway was closed for 361 days following the atmospheric river event on Nov. 14, 2021.
  • In addition to 25 sites washed out during November storms, another five washouts that occurred this past summer were repaired.
  • Following the storms, more than 5,000 fish were salvaged from isolated channels and returned to the Nicola River.
  • For some highways, it could be 2024 before everything is finished, if not longer.
Click to play video: 'Flooding takes out large portions of Highway 8'
Flooding takes out large portions of Highway 8

“B.C. is in some ways writing the book on new engineering standards for climate adaptation for the 21st century,” transportation minister Rob Fleming said in mid-November.

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“When we talk about what climate resilient infrastructure looks like, it’s how do you manage massive atmospheric river precipitation events like that, it means significantly larger culverts, it means much larger bridge spans so water can get underneath it.”

Steve Sirett, executive director for the Southern Interior region with the Ministry of Transportation, says the amount of work being done is incredible.

“People were eagerly looking to do that work and get out there, and understood the importance of the work they were doing to get the highways back open,” said Sirett.

Click to play video: 'Aerial video shows extent of damage along Highway 1 at Jackass Mountain'
Aerial video shows extent of damage along Highway 1 at Jackass Mountain

“There was a lot of news that led up to the actual reopening of the Coquihalla and Fraser Canyon and the corridors that were affected, but, since that time, the work hasn’t stopped.”

Sirett says work on the Coquihalla “continued 24-7, all year long, to get back open to four lanes by this Christmas, which was another big milestone for us.”

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He added, “We’re going to be working on that damage for a number of years yet — and that’s on the backs of B.C. residents, construction workers, road builders and ministry personnel who take a lot of pride in getting those highways rebuilt to a more resilient standard that will withstand future events.”

Click to play video: 'B.C.’s Highway 8 reopens 361 day after closure caused by washouts'
B.C.’s Highway 8 reopens 361 day after closure caused by washouts

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