Construction crews have been working around the clock to repair the heavily damaged Coquihalla Highway and scenes from the ground show that work is progressing steadily.
“The highway will be open,” said Paula Cousins, executive director of the Southern Interior for the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure. “It won’t be like it was. It won’t be a four-lane freeway the whole way through. We’re still in the response phase of the event, but this work will allow traffic to start moving. We’re feeling pretty confident that’ll be by early January.”
She said that approximately 200,000 cubic metres of fill has been used so far in rebuilding efforts. That adds up to 20,000 truckloads worth of material — and that’s just for the section of highway from the Coquihalla Summit to Merritt. An equivalent amount has been used on the southern section heading toward Hope.
The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) led media on a tour of the northern section of the Coquihalla near Merritt on Friday (Dec. 10) to survey the damage in four areas.
The first area was Murray Flats where the Coldwater River overflowed its banks and eroded the roadway in four locations. The southbound lanes of the Coquihalla were completely washed away for approximately 500 metres while the northbound lanes were undermined. Some areas were left with gaps as deep as 10 metres.
Crews are working to rebuild the southbound lanes and reinforce the embankments to prevent future washouts. Murray Flats will be one of the sections where the Coquihalla will be reduced to one lane in either direction.
The next stop was Bottetop Bridge where the river caused three of the bridge spans to collapse. During the atmospheric river on Nov. 14, the river was rushing water at 300 cubic metres per second, far above its usual 20 cubic metres per second. The powerful currents caused significant erosion beneath the bridge, damaged the abutments and footings of the bridge, and caused the loss of 100 metres of the roadway.
“Bottletop Bridge was one of the most significantly impacted sites on the whole corridor,” Highway 5 engineering director Kevin Weicker said. “We have a little bit of everything in terms of damage.”
A temporary bridge will be installed to get traffic moving once again.
A few kilometres away, the southbound bridge span of the Juliet Bridge also collapsed. While crews were working to demolish the collapsed bridge span, a second span collapsed. Luckily, the northbound bridge held and MOTI engineers have determined it is safe for vehicles to use.
Beyond Juliet Bridge, three culverts in the area of Mine Creek were blocked by mud and debris that flowed downhill during the storm. That caused washouts along several kilometres of roadway and eroded the road shoulder.
This segment is just before the Summitt and will be another area where traffic is reduced to one lane in either direction.
Over 20 sites on the Coquihalla were damaged, including significant mudslides and washouts near Hope.
Cousins said that a permanent repair is still in the planning stages and could not provide an estimate on how much it would cost or when the work would be completed. However, she noted that any permanent repair work will be built to withstand the impacts of climate change.
“This has been an incredible effort from everyone working around the clock in all kinds of conditions to reestablish this freeway… I’ve never seen anything like it in my career.”
B.C.’s transportation minister Rob Fleming and federal transport minister Omar Alghabra were scheduled to attend the tour, but were unable to due to hazardous storm conditions.
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