Crews install a temporary bridge by Kennedy Lake, where a Jan. 22 rockfall severely damaged the road bed, closing off access to west coast communities for days. (Curt McLeod photo)
A controlled blast caused a rockslide larger than expected, taking out a section of road at the Kennedy Hill Construction Project. The accident occurred late at night on Wednesday, Jan. 22, closing off road access to Clayoquot Sound's communities for days.
According to the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, the damage to Highway 4 was caused by an unexpectedly large volume of rock falling on rain-saturated ground during a scheduled blast, as part of the Highway 4 - Kennedy Hill Safety Improvement project. The highway was closed to traffic at the time of the blast.
The Kennedy Hill Construction Project is located adjacent to Kennedy Lake approximately 14 kilometres northeast of the Tofino/Ucluelet Highway 4 junction. The project starts at the bottom/south end of Kennedy Hill and continues up the hill towards Port Alberni for a distance of approximately 1.5 kilometres.
The $38.1 million project began September 2018 and is scheduled for completion in September of this year. When finished, the notoriously dangerous section of highway will be wider, corners will be less sharp and the hill section will be regraded, making it less steep. In order to achieve this, the rocky hillside requires extensive blasting to remove and relocate rock and fill. The road is closed almost daily at regular intervals to accommodate the blasting.
But on Jan. 22, for the fourth time, a scheduled blast damaged the road to the extent that it affected traffic flow.
“Overnight during a scheduled blast the rock that came down onto the road compromised an existing retaining wall along the highway. A section of the highway has failed and we have lost a travel lane,” said the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure in a Jan. 23 press release.
The road was closed for the day while construction crews and engineers assessed the damage and made plans for an immediate repair.
Later that afternoon the Ministry announced that the road would remain closed but a plan was in place.
“The workplan is to restore highway access by excavating the damaged road bed and replacing with a drivable surface,” they wrote.
Crews worked throughout the night hauling fill to the damaged section of road, but by Saturday morning the road still was closed to most traffic.
Joenella Frank of Tla-o-qui-aht was waiting for an opening early Saturday morning so that she and her sons could attend a funeral in Ahousaht. By then, a precariously narrow, rough road was in place to allow single lane alternating traffic through. Only small, passenger vehicles and pickup trucks were allowed through.
“It’s bad, really bad; oh my God, anxiety, I almost cried,” she told Ha-Shilth-Sa.
Frank said the construction crews were allowing funeral-goers through a few at a time with an escort vehicle.
“They wouldn’t let me record, or post,” said Frank, adding that they were told by site workers that the ministry didn’t want images of the area on social media.
Meanwhile, grocery shelves in the Tofino and Ucluelet Co-ops were cleared of fresh produce and dairy as customers stocked up, fearing that delivery trucks would not get through for a few more days.
On the morning of Friday, Jan. 24, the Ministry of Transportation announced that Highway 4 at Kennedy Hill would reopen to essential travel only between noon and 8 p.m. that day. Travel was restricted to passenger vehicles and light pickups only.
Flaggers were stationed at the Tofino/Ucluelet junction and at Sproat Lake near Port Alberni to marshal the traffic and turn away larger vehicles that could not make it through the repaired section of highway.
A new plan to bring in a Bailey Bridge (portable, pre-fab bridge) was made. The road was to be closed for 24 hours while the bridge was installed. But the work took much less time than expected and the road was open to all traffic on Saturday, Jan. 25.
“Specialized bridge crews worked throughout the day to install a pre-fabricated 20-metre single-lane bridge," stated a ministry press release. "Installation of the bridge was quicker than expected because bedrock was deeper than expected.
This allowed for the bridge to be inset into the road grade, rather than above it, which would have required a substantial amount of approach ramp work. Construction time was also reduced by bringing in additional bridge crews and equipment.”
They went on to say that all vehicles are now able to safely travel the corridor, which remains under single lane alternating traffic conditions through the project site.
The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure says while this event has delayed the project for a couple of days, work is still on track to be completed later this year. But more needs to be done with the bridge.
“The bridge is a temporary fix for the area, and a more permanent fix will be required during construction to support the ongoing blasting operations above that immediate area,” they said in an email. “The ministry and contractor are working on plans on performing the project works around the temporary bridge. This bridge and slide area will ultimately be an abandoned segment of the road once the project is complete.”
Drivers are encouraged to check DriveBC for the Kennedy Hill project closure schedule, along with current road conditions.
The project team is evaluating how construction will progress around the new bridge.
“The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure thanks motorists and residents on both sides of the closure for their patience. The ministry also recognizes the crews who worked around the clock to open the highway as quickly as possible,” they wrote in their press release.
When completed later this year, the Highway 4 - Kennedy Hill Safety Improvement Project pledges to provide a safer and more reliable connection between Port Alberni and the west coast of Vancouver Island.