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Commentary: Highway plans will negatively impact safety

The proposed Alaska Highway work will impact our safety, our communities and our environment.

Shaunagh Stikeman

The highway is the gateway to our communities and an important part of our everyday lives. We believe the Alaska Highway safety upgrades for Hillcrest, as currently proposed by the Department of Highways and Public Works (HPW), will have significant negative impacts on our safety, our communities and our environment.

HPW’s highway design calls for the expansion of our highway to four lanes of traffic, and several additional turning lanes. It threatens to increase speed and traffic, endanger our cyclists and pedestrians, and increase greenhouse gas emissions.

HPW conducted an engagement survey in 2019 and found that pedestrian safety was the top concern amongst respondents. Disappointingly, HPW’s highway design is based on technical reviews that focused solely on the needs of drivers and failed to consider the needs of pedestrians or cyclists. Let’s create a highway design that considers the safety of all users of this transportation corridor.

In October 2019, HPW invited Yukoners to an event titled “Paving the Future” to hear from a panel of experts on highway safety. Those experts agreed that a continuous, separated path provides the highest level of protection for cyclists and pedestrians.

Sadly, a traffic light does not provide sufficient protection for cyclists and pedestrians if they must cross four lanes, plus several turning lanes, as planned for in HPW’s highway design.

The Black Street stairs could be a wonderful and ecologically friendly passageway to the downtown core; however, safety concerns with the highway will serve as a deterrent to using this route. Let’s develop a highway design that provides a pedestrian underpass for the highway if we must add more lanes.

There is no question that adding more lanes to a highway results in more speeding. There is also no question that the higher the speed, the more severe the collision. Studies of our stretch of the highway reveal that 95 per cent of drivers exceed the current speed limit of 70 km/h. HPW’s own experts at “Paving the Future” agreed that, given the proposed design, the only way to keep drivers from speeding would be by installing photo radar.

From a design perspective, there is no need to expand this entire section of highway to four lanes of traffic.

By keeping specific sections of the highway to two lanes, there would be an opportunity to build a pedestrian underpass because the highway would remain narrow where required. Let’s work on a highway design that improves safety for all users by maintaining fewer and narrower lanes to encourage slower driving.

For many years now, we have asked for a safe highway crossing at Hillcrest Drive. In 2018, YESAB recommended that a traffic light be installed on the highway at Hillcrest Drive based on the present conditions of two lanes of traffic. Let’s make sure we get a safe highway crossing installed in 2020 before there is another tragic accident.

Last October, our territorial government declared a climate emergency. A month later, Yukon Government released “Our Clean Future,” its draft strategy for addressing climate change.

The first goal identified in this strategy is reducing greenhouse gas emissions, particularly by targeting our reliance on gas vehicles. If we are serious about tackling climate change, let’s work on a highway design that favours public transportation, cyclists and pedestrians, and encourages us to transition away from our unsustainable driving habits.

In HPW’s own documents submitted to YESAB, it acknowledges that its highway design is pretty much the same as that proposed in 2015. Let’s create a highway design that reflects our community’s vision, and not a rehashing of the same plan. We also recommend that YESAB review HPW’s highway plan in three components – for each phase of the project – to allow HPW to better engage with communities on the finer details of the design.

We are calling on YESAB to make recommendations with respect to this proposal to:

• Provide a continuous, separated path for cyclists and pedestrians, including an underpass;

• Encourage slower driving speeds;

• Install a safe highway crossing at Hillcrest Drive in 2020;

• Prioritize a reduction in our carbon footprint; and

• Reflect the voice of our communities.

Shaunagh Stikeman is a board member with the Hillcrest Community Association. She sent a version of this commentary to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board on behalf of the Hillcrest Community Association, Valleyview Community Association, and the Whitehorse Urban Cycling Coalition.