The July dinner event was sponsored by SNC Lavalin Vancouver and took place on their building rooftop in downtown. All involved in selecting this location deserve high praise because the view from up there was breathtaking! Ron Lee, P.Eng, Senior Project Manager, Infrastructure Engineering, SNC-Lavalin Inc was a knowledgeable and engaging presenter. Ron joined SNC-Lavalin in 2002 to be on the Owner’s Engineers team of the Sea-to-Sky Highway Improvement Project, a public private partnership endeavor, to improve the safety and reliability of the highway ahead of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. His presentation covered the Sea-To-Sky project, an 8 years long challenge with a legacy more than 3 times longer than that.

The majority of the audience was extremely familiar with the Sea to Sky project because it has been such a sore point in our community for many years. When Vancouver was awarded the 2010 Olympic Games in the summer of 2002, the highway linking Vancouver to Whistler had to be modernized from a 2 lanes highway into something suitable for the new Millennium. Originally it was started in 1950 as a logging road and presented a number of high impact challenges: it had little to no shoulders, it was squeezed between the edge of the cliff along the Howe Sound, Pacific Ocean on one side and the mountains on the other side, plus an active railway between the road and the cliff. There is not a lot of space to work with along the way and even if you have not driven on it ever, you can imagine how tight the space is. The road has a lot of sharp curves along its 115 Km and you can expect a challenging drive time of 2 hours even today; however the scenery makes up for it and it balances the long stretches when there’s no passing lane and all you can do is go with the flow.

The project’s biggest constrain was time and the timeline had the following major milestones:

  • July 2nd, 2002 – the Olympic games were awarded to Vancouver
  • Mar 2005 to Sep 2009 – Execution
  • Sep 2009 to Mar 2010 – Closing

There was no wiggle room in this regard and on top of it there were a number of other challenges:

  • Safety and Reliability had to be improved to modern standards (minimum 3 lanes in the very tight sectors of the highway)
  • The overall cost of the project could not exceed $600 million (as decided by the Provincial Government)
  • Be good neighbors with the communities along the way
  • The speed along it (when finished) to be no higher than 80 Km/hr

The bidding part was open internationally and out of the original 90 bids, 5 were shortlisted in the first stage and then the number got reduced to 3 in the second stage. The winner was Macquarie Group (Australia) and a couple of the critical decisions they made to increase the chances for success were to contract out all the work with local companies and have the majority of the teams involved work from the same offices location. That enabled quick communication and decision making during the bumpy road ahead.

The biggest risks identified at the beginning were:

  • The geographical location
  • The uncertainty on schedule and cost
  • Construction road closures had to be limited in duration and to specific times of the day/ night

In the end the project was delivered in time and within budget! That is quite amazing given its magnitude and challenges. The highway is good for 25 years (hard to believe 7 years have already passed since that time…). A couple of lessons learnt can be summarized as follows:
Internal Stakeholders – “Plan the work, work the plan”
External Stakeholders – “Embrace common ground”
It is no surprise the project received a number of awards such as recognition for project financing in P3 projects and Consulting Engineers of BC Award Merit. Today a lot of details about it could be accessed online HERE
Us as locals we appreciate the most how much the new highway means for the region. Driving on it is literally like night and day. We remember all the controversy (should we improve this highway, should we build another one instead or should we add a number of tunnels along the way), the frantic years of construction, the protests and the opposition to it, etc; however in the end we (as a community) are all enjoying the benefits of a solid project done by us and for us. That is what truly matters when all is said and done!

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