New route for Highway 29 realignment selected

A new route for Highway 29 realignment at the east end of Bear Flat has been selected, BC Hydro announced this week.

The realignment is being pushed north of its originally selected route, and will be 240 metres away from a potential indigenous burial site and 370 metres from an indigenous cultural site, Hydro says.

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It was one of three new routes considered in consultation with First Nations and landowners, Hydro said in a news release Sept. 4.

"Compared to the two other options that were considered, the selected route has similar or lower impacts to archaeological and heritage sites, and has lower impacts to private lands and agricultural lands than the most northern route evaluated," Hydro stated.

The NDP government tasked the Crown utility to redesign the alignment when it committed to continuing construction of the $10.7-billion Site C dam last December. 

Ken Boon, who farms at Bear Flat and had much of his land expropriated in 2016 to make way for the new highway and dam reservoir, is happy with the new route, but said many questions remain.

"What this means for us is it leaves our yard more intact," he said.

"There's still question marks about whether our house can remain where it is. Hydro had some engineers take a look at it this year and we're just waiting to see what they say. It's probably very unlikely our house can stay where it is, but we'll see what they come back with."

The realignment includes a new bridge over Cache Creek, one of many tributaries of the Peace River that will be flooded for the dam's reservoir. The new highway will still go through the Boon's campground, but will have less of an impact on its facilities, Boon said. The previous route punched right through the campground's buildings, he said.

"It couldn't have been worse for the campground with the way they had expropriated it," Boon said, adding he's hopeful the campground can continue to operate.

"In our view, this route is a better compromise for everybody."

highway29-realignment
A map of new realignment for Highway 29 at the east end of Bear Flat, marked in orange. - BC Hydro

BC Hydro will work with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure to transfer lands that are no longer needed for the project back to former owners, Dave Conway, a spokesman for the project, wrote in an email.

Geotechnical investigations and planning for the route is ongoing, and construction is planned to start by spring or summer of 2020.

The cost of the new route will be around 10 per cent more than the original alignment plan, but has been factored into the project's revised $10.7-billion budget, Conway said.

A full cost estimate couldn't be provided as the design is not complete. Once it is, Hydro will determine its procurement approach, Conway said. If publicly tendered, it's expected that will be issued in the first quarter of 2020, Conway said.

The timing of the work won't impact the plan to divert the Peace River in fall 2020, needed to start building the actual dam downstream near Fort St. John, Conway said.

"Our original plan was to have the this portion of the highway realignment completed before river diversion to avoid impacts to the highway in high water situations; however, a temporary detour at Cache Creek/Bear Flat will now be constructed to address road availability risks during diversion," he said.

"This realignment needs to be complete prior to reservoir filling in 2023, and we’re on track to meet this milestone."

The detour will be built just south of the existing highway and bridge, Conway said.

In the meantime, construction work for highway realignment at the west end of Bear Flat will start at the end of September, according to Hydro. That work isn't part of the new realignment on the east end of the flat, Hydro said.

However, it will impact the Meek and Jardine farm, said Boon, who also represents the Peace Valley Landowner Association. Boon believes it will also make for a complicated connection between the east and west ends of the flat that could prove dangerous. 

"We're disappointed with that," he said.

"Hydro seemed to refuse to want to change the west end of the highway here, and as a result of that they're going right through Colin and Leslie's house. To me, it's not a very good route."

The association wrote a letter to Premier John Horgan, Boon said, asking that work be put on hold as the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations seek a court injunction to stop construction in the area until a civil trial is heard to determine if Site C violates their treaty rights.

The association haven't received a response, Boon said. The two First Nations are in court in Vancouver this week, and West Moberly Chief Roland Willson could not be reached for comment.

"We believe that with a new government they'd be more open to communication and keeping lines of communication open, and it doesn't really seem to be happening," Boon said.

"We're still rooting for the First Nations getting an injunction, and to see an hopeful end to the project."

Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at editor@ahnfsj.ca.

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