PHOTO: 21st Street is in the middle at the bottom, with the car lot on the right side. It crosses Cliffe Avenue and dead-ends at the Courtenay Airpark boundary. Dave Bazett photo
A proposed new bridge would kill the Courtenay Airpark, walkway, Hollyhock Marsh, undermine Kus-kus-sum and add another signal light on Comox Road. So why is the City of Courtenay promoting it? Even mayoralty candidates aren’t sure
The City of Courtenay has floated a proposal to build a third crossing of the Courtenay River at 21st Street to alleviate traffic congestion at the 17th Street and Fifth Street bridges.
The proposal, which is part of a study for the city’s required update of their 2014 Master Transportation Plan, would wipe out the Courtenay Airpark, part of the Airpark walkway, destroy the estuary’s last remaining intact ecosystem at Hollyhock Marsh, undermine the Kus-kus-sum rehabilitation project and create another major signaled intersection on Comox Road at a point that regularly floods during winter storms.
Not to mention that Hollyhock Marsh is protected crown land and is an area under claim by the K’omoks First Nation.
It’s an idea that has left many people shaking their heads.
“I thought it was an April Fools Day joke,” said Dave Bazett, a land surveyor whose office is in the proposal’s path and who owns two aircraft hangared at the airpark.
Project Watershed Technical Director Dan Bowen said the study appears to have been done by someone who doesn’t know anything about the area.
“And, who employs someone to pursue an idea that’s not feasible?” he said.
Bazett pointed his finger at the city, which defined the scope of the transportation plan update for the consultant, including a bridge south of 17th Street and the idea that the airpark and the marsh were expendable.
Even the three announced candidates for Courtenay mayor tried to distance themselves from the proposal.
David Frisch emphasized that the proposal is not a plan, just some consultant’s idea. He said there are more environmentally friendly options.
Bob Wells said he didn’t know how a third crossing got in the plan. He thinks its an option the consultant picked up from previous studies, before Kus-kus-sum became a community project.
Erik Eriksson wondered how many millions of dollars per minute of wait time at the existing bridge intersections the public is willing to pay for. A new crossing would cost tens of millions of dollars.
“So we’re not going to see another bridge in my lifetime,” Eriksson said.
The city has undertaken a required four-year update to its 2014 Master Transportation Plan. It held an open house in March and another in mid-June, and is conducting an online survey.
The study and community feedback will be presented to the Courtenay City Council over the summer. Council members will decide what parts of the study get costed out and eventually make it into the 2018 Master Transportation Plan.
The 2014 plan also examined options for a third crossing. It rejected crossings at 19th and 26th streets, and suggested Eighth or 11th streets for new bridges. The city eventually costed out an 11th Street bridge at around $35 million, and later dropped the idea.
But traffic congestion at the 17th Street east intersection and at the Fifth Street east intersection has worsened as the Comox Valley has grown. But is it unbearable?
Wait times at the bridges may pale now in comparison to the Langford Crawl in Victoria or to numerous choke points in Vancouver, but without an acceptable long-term solution, motorists’ frustration will magnify.
Why 21st Street won’t fly
Bowen, a former BC Ministry of Highways employee in the Comox Valley, said the third crossing proposal and other proposals in the study to build new roads across the Courtenay Flats farmland “fly in the face” of everything Project Watershed has been trying to achieve.
“We’ve been working on projects over the past 20 years to preserve and protect the remaining flora and fauna habitat along the river and K’omoks estuary,” he said. “This proposal has no regard for the estuary. It’s single-minded and not well-informed.”
Local citizens fought Crown Zellerbach from filling in the marsh back in the 1960s and battled them and the provincial government to save the pristine ecosystem, which is unique in the Comox Valley.
Hollyhock Marsh is the model for Kus-kus-sum, a project to restore of the old Fields sawmill site, and the marsh is it’s connection back to the estuary.
“It’s a non-starter for us (Project Watershed,” Bowen said. “And I would expect for K’omoks First Nation, too.”
Decafnation was unable to reach K’omoks Chief Nicole Rempel for this story.
Bazett, a pilot who uses aircrafts in his land surveying business, considers the 21st Street crossing a “purposeful attack” on the Courtenay Airpark.
Bazett says the city has tried to shut down the airport before and neither the mayor or council members have been supportive.
“This crossing was concocted as an excuse to eliminate the airpark,” he said. “The study didn’t even consider air transportation.”
He doesn’t think the city realizes the economic impact and importance of the airport. It brings pilots and passengers to town and the RCMP and MediVac helicopters use the facility regularly.
“It’s a precious jewel,” he said. “There are few private airparks in the province for both float and land aircraft, and within walking distance of town.”
Bowen said his experience working with the highways ministry taught him there are better options to improve traffic flow.
The primary problem is that there are two northbound lanes of traffic approaching the bridge from the south on Cliffe Avenue and two lanes on the bridge. But whether you turn north or south, you have to merge down to one lane.
It’s the same approaching the bridge from the north on the Island Highway bypass, which is two lanes at Superstore, but merges down to one lane at the bridge.
Bowen believes there should be four lanes of traffic approaching the 17th Street bridge, across the bridge and then all the way to the Shell gas station at the old Island Highway and also part way toward Comox.
The long-term solution, he said, is to twin the 17th Street bridge. The highways ministry purchased extra land on the north side of 17th Street east of Cliffe Avenue to anticipate a widened bridge. That land looks like a park with cherry trees.
The ministry also designed the bypass for four lanes, which is why the shoulders are extra wide through the S-turns.
Bowen agree with Erik Eriksson about also widening the Fifth Street bridge and making it four lanes from the Shell gas station at the bottom of Mission Hill all the way to Cliffe Avenue.
An election issue?
City Councillor Eriksson says the study is flawed in another important way: it only considers Courtenay boundaries.
“Any traffic study has to be regional,” he said. “And Comox people should help pay for any traffic improvements.”
Councillor Frisch wouldn’t rule out a third crossing forever, but he said “city taxpayers are not going to pay $20 million to $30 million for a new bridge.”
The question for him is where to spend the city’s limited funds.
“If we spend it on a bridge now, what’s the lost opportunity to support walkability, cycling, transit and other things,” he said.
City Council candidate Melanie McCollum said the cost of building a bridge across a estuary seems potentially prohibitively high.
“It’s very sensitive habitat. It would also mean building into sediment, which liquefies in an earthquake,” she said. “Of course this is not my area of specialty, but from what I know, building a bridge in an earthquake zone on sediment will incur some very expensive geoengineering.”
McCollum would also like to know if the plan for this bridge had taken into account sea level rise expected in the next 50 to 70 years.
Courtenay Mayor Larry Jangula did not respond to our questions.