Rhys Parsons

Rhys Parsons

New stretch of highway now open

A highway born out of tragedy and heartache is being celebrated as a route to the future

A highway born out of tragedy and heartache is being celebrated as a route to the future.

Hundreds of residents turned out Friday for the official opening of the new four-lane, nine-kilometre Highway 97 between Oyama and Winfield.

“I’m just thrilled it’s open,” said Noreen Guenther, a former Lake Country councillor who led the campaign to replace the old two-lane road along Wood Lake because of constant accidents, many fatal.

“It was something we needed to fix.”

The loss of life was front and centre for Norm Letnick, Kelowna-Lake Country MLA, as he took part in Friday’s festivities.

“A lot of people were getting hurt and dying on the old highway,” he said.

“This is going to mean a lot fewer police officers will have to give bad news to families.”

The speed limit will be 100 kilometres an hour.

“I pray we all continue to drive with due diligence,” said Ron Cannan, Kelowna-Lake Country MP.

Construction on the $77.9 million project began two years ago, and it includes two overpasses to connect the old highway to the new one, and two underpasses to provide access to Crown land.

“I’ve been watching this (work) for two years because it’s going past my house,” said June Hughes, an Oyama resident.

“It’s a big event, pretty impressive. It will be a wonderful road.”

Also checking things out Friday was Mike Reiley, Coldstream’s director of development services, who was involved in early planning for the highway while he was with the District of Lake Country.

“I wanted to see the fruits of my labour. It’s nice to see something we worked hard to get pushed through,” he said.

It’s anticipated the highway will benefit North Okanagan residents heading to Kelowna International Airport, the University of B.C. or to work in Kelowna.

“We’ll probably get more use out of this than people in the central and south Okanagan,” said Eric Foster, Vernon-Monashee MLA, who was master of ceremonies during the event.

Kevin Poole, Vernon’s economic development manager, says improved access to the airport is critical.

“There are small technological companies here and they are traveling a lot to tie into markets in California,” he said.

However, some businesses are concerned about the potential impact of shifting traffic patterns.

“The spontaneous customer will likely be gone,” said Al Gatzke, who owns Gatzke’s Farm Market, which has benefited from high visibility along the now old part of the highway.

“I am concerned because they (government) don’t have signs up for services and attractions.”

However, Gatzke has used the last three years to prepare for the new transportation reality.

“We are becoming a destination with weddings and concerts. People will plan to come here,” he said.

The old highway along Wood Lake will be turned over to the District of Lake Country and become known as Pelmewash Parkway. A variety of recreational activities could eventually occur there.

“It will be pedestrian friendly and cycle friendly,” said Mayor James Baker, Lake Country mayor.

During construction, the Okanagan Indian Band and Westbank First Nation were involved in archaeological work to ensure items of cultural significance were preserved.

“Our people were able to provide a contribution and say what was here 7,000 years ago,” said Byron Louis, Okanagan Indian Band chief.