In 2003, three words appeared to doom Vancouver’s bid to host the Winter Olympics.
“It’s too far,” said Gerhard Heiberg of the International Olympic Committee.
Heiberg believed it would take too long to drive between the proposed Olympic venues in Vancouver and Whistler, BC. The two-lane Sea-to-Sky Highway that ran along the coast was a notorious “white-knuckle drive,” squeezed between rocky cliffs and a sheer drop to the Pacific Ocean. Known as the “highway of death,” it averaged 574 accidents a year between 1998 and 2004.
Vancouver recognized that a successful Olympics depended on making the highway faster and safer. When the city won its bid to host the 2010 Olympics, the project had an urgent deadline.
The design-build contractor Peter Kiewit Sons chose HMM, a joint venture of Hatch and Mott MacDonald to design the highway improvement. The joint venture was responsible for managing all design work, and for detailed design of specific sections of the project. (See our video at 4:09.)
The joint venture led 12 design consultants and a team of about 100 people to complete the design of over 40 miles (65 kilometers) of new highway improvements, including 40 bridge structures. Significant improvements to the highway included the following:
- Construction of a four-lane divided highway through most of the West Vancouver to Squamish sections.
- Separate exits for local and ferry traffic at Horseshoe Bay
- Safety enhancements such as high-reflective pavement markings, signal improvements and rumble strips
In 2009, when the project was completed, the Vancouver Sun headlined one story “Sea to Sky Engineering an Amazing Feat.” The most challenging aspect, it said, “was not how to blast the rock or build roadbeds that hang out in the air, but how to do those things with about 15,000 vehicles a day driving through the worksite.”
At Doodson’s Corner, for example, where the old highway made a tight curve around an outcrop of rock, a “small canyon” was cut through the stone. Traffic was interrupted for 30-minute periods while rock was blasted, crushed, and moved. Then workers on the cliff had to remain still to avoid rockslides while vehicles moved past.
The biggest single highway contract in British Columbia history, the Sea-to-Sky project was completed on time and on budget. The Vancouver Olympics created an estimated 45,000 jobs and contributed $2.5 billion of Gross Domestic Product to the economy of British Columbia. Canadian athletes won 14 gold medals, breaking the record for the most gold medals won at a single Winter Olympics.
The number of highway accident dropped to 124 in 2011. Jordan Sturdy, the mayor of Pemberton, said, “I think we are going to have people recognizing it is an easy drive where it wasn’t before.”
In addition to improving speed and safety for drivers, the project had benefits for the environment. Nineteen culverts were installed at a cost of more than CDN $2 million to allow wildlife to cross under the highway. Funding was provided to improve hiking trails, buy a forested island, restore wetlands, research local reptiles and amphibians, and offset losses to dry arbutus habitat around Horseshoe Bay.