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Sea to Sky highway retaining walls safety inspection reports released, raise more questions on quality of build and maintenance.

One of the advantages to blogging is the ability to follow up on stories as many times as one needs to get to the bottom of it. And as is becoming more common with stories involving the BC provincial government, it’s a matter of digging deeper,looking beyond the ministry media handler statements and sometimes going back and comparing them to new ones.

Such is the story of everything to do with the Sea to Sky highway, that lovely scenic drive and engineering marvel that takes one out to Squamish and Whistler. Not only scenic, its construction,cost and maintenance has been a source of many stories that give British Columbians a glimpse into how major projects are built and paid for.

Stories like the reason there why will never be a toll on that highway – at least until the current contractual obligations are paid out. The hidden shadow toll is based on vehicle usage counts and distance, and is included as a part of the total payment to the concessionaire ( the private partners the government must pay back every month for footing the bill of the construction) If you are a newer reader, you can find all those stories on my Best Of page, just over half way down :

Another story that has been just as compelling for me because of the potential implications of the research, revolves around the more than 200 retaining walls built along the Sea to Sky highway.

On April 30th, 2014 I broke the story that the Ministry of Transportation was investigating the condition of a series of retaining walls after photos were taken that showed gaps between blocks, seepage outside of drains, blocked drains, and walls that were wavy and in some cases bulging.

The ministry responded on  May 1st,2014, that they had done their own investigation and that the issues were all merely cosmetic in nature.

In November of 2014, it was discovered that Kiewit had inspected their own work as per a Ministry of Transportation Operation managers emails, who advised the ministry was reviewing what Kiewit had discovered.

It was then revealed – not by government but by a resident in the area of the repair – in April,2015 that two other retaining walls on the Sea to Sky highway that showed little to no visible defects, were undergoing extensive repair work.

Transportation minister Todd Stone was on the hot seat in the legislature looking nervous that week, but instead of answering any meaningful questions he tried to deny,deflect and discredit the opposition who were finally doing their job well.

Just days later it was revealed by yet another Ministry of Transportation manager that Kiewit, the builder of the highway, had used substandard materials.

Repairs have been ongoing this summer at the Pasco Road rebuild and at the CN rail overpass near Brandywine falls past Squamish, and in both cases the repairs are extensive in scope.  But why such extensive rebuilds?

An FOI  requested and released to someone in the media in August of this year, gives some insight into what went wrong on these two walls in particular. And the results are damning.

A letter dated June 17th,2014 from Hatch Mott McDonald to Sea to Sky highway builder Kiewit,  states that Kiewit flagged those two walls for internal review and testing, after an internal Kiewit audit showed the possibility that deformed wire was used in the walls instead of the contract standard wire. ( pg 98-106 below)

The safety inspection reports also show that despite the Ministries earlier claim in May 2014 that a full investigation had already been undertaken of the walls, the safety inspections were not conducted until October 2014, a full 5 months after I first broke the story.

The FOI package includes  just 12 inspection reports from 2013. In all, most walls were rated well, with several in the fair to poor range for particular components. All the issues identified by the photos posted here previously are noted, including erosion, drainage issues, water seeping between blocks, misaligned blocks, walls built of out line resulting in a wavy formation, bulges of compacted fill walls, a result of over compaction during construction.

Motion sensors also tracked movement on the walls reported here earlier for a period of time and no significant motion was detected.

However, questions remain as to how and why substandard material was used in the construction of the CN wall and the Pasco Road wall, and why it took until this point in time to address it.

Questions also remain as to why walls clearly built out of line and with defects were approved as acceptable for completion, considering the cost of building this highway. This is something I have never been able to get an answer on from the ministry of Transportation but is concerning to me for a couple of reasons.

  1. The highway is only  6 years old in some areas. To have so many issues that need maintenance and repair -some that are extensive- at such a young age indicates issues during construction that someone still signed off on. If things are popping up so quickly, and in at least a couple of cases are still not being addressed, what can we expect for the longevity of this highway?
  2. Kiewit is on half of the partnership with Flatiron that built the Port Mann Bridge, which also had very tight contractual deadlines, and also experienced significant issues during construction. The continual decline and eventual replacement of a brand new retaining wall on Lougheed Highway and the gantry collapse are just two. Kiewit has had a long history of issues in the US and elsewhere in Canada, which are detailed here.

With industry sources indicating there have already been incidents of spalling under the  new Port Mann ( falling concrete bits and pieces) and geotechnical issues with settlement.soft earth at both the north and south ends, one wonders if  BC’s great transportion projects will suffer the same crumbling fate as those in Montreal. 

Calls to the Ministry of Transportation made this morning, were not returned as of the time of this posting. I’m not surprised – I would have hard time explaining how an $800 million plus highway ended up like this too. ( and that doesn’t include the 25 years of PS payments either…)

Pasco Road retaining wall rebuild.

Pasco Road retaining wall rebuild.

IMG_20150819_142012 (2)


    • You would be surprised…..

      It’s not a ‘sexy’ news story but it is news and continues to have implications. These are the projects that are costing British Columbians money for the next 20 -25 years. It’s simply not acceptable to have these kinds of things happening on project after project.

      The SFPR has had a number of ongoing issues because it was downgraded,improperly designed and poorly constructed in areas where the soil is unstable and boggy. While many of these repairs are covered under warrenty, the contractor usually sill comes out smelling like a rose because they made the construction ‘deadline’, and received a large bonus for doing so. The bonus minus the cost of warranty work is worth it.

      Montreal has had serious issues with infrastructure that is now failing because of cost cutting measures and substandard materials used during the construction phase by contractors and subcontractors. What was called for in the contract and actually used on site were two different things.

      The Wiliam R Bennett bridge had failing expansion joints shortly after opening. There were questions on the source of the concrete being used. The questions that need to be asked, is why does the government find this acceptable, keep making excuses for it and allows it to continue?


      • considering we are paying “shadow tolls” why are we not charging them with poor construction? WHO in god’s name negotiates these failures to the taxpayers?


        • Because Kiewit is paying for it-or so we have been told- the government isn’t making a fuss and minimizing all of this to the public. But let’s be realistic. This highway is very young.In some areas small trees and shrubs have roots growing into the walls that was reported but should have been removed and to date it hasn’t.

          We have a long maintenance contract and things like this are basic maintenance.Broken drains, drains clogged. And of course why are some walls built so far out of line they look like waves?

          There is a pattern here and I don’t like it.These mega projects cost us for generations when they are P3 deals.


  1. Remember wall being repaired on north side of port mann ,100m east of IKEA.
    Is flatiron part of hydro towers install also?

    Hey BCLiberals jacked up BC debt from 34 billion dollars to 65 billion dollars.In what 14 years.?
    On time on budget vs breach of fudiciary duty and or public trust.?

    questionable comments-
    on time on budget?
    families first?
    whatever it takes to win?

    bc rail
    bc ferries
    health research death
    bc hydro calofornia lawsuit loss
    recent BC ferry giveaway to Fiji
    highest homes prices and one of lowest min wage in Canada(30 percent of food bank users are children).Security guards at banks ,now grocery stores.


  2. Dare I ask? How much has Keweit contributed to the Liberal election fund over the years? An $800,000,000.00 contract PLUS the 20+ years of “fees” buys a lot of silence….
    Perhaps we should hire John Furlong to “get to the bottom” of this since he did such a wonderful job with the Vancouver riot “investigation”. It should only cost us another 250k to have him whitewash it.
    Eventually one of these “walls” will collapse and Keweit will hire lawyers to insist it wasnt their construction techniques.
    Taxpayers….. zero
    Lawyers, politicians, etc……. millions.

    The political system in this country is rotten to the core.


    • And if anyone is wondering why it’s taken so long to clean up the rush hour mess at the bottom of the Cut ….. its because the North Shore Highway goes all the way from Squamish to the Second Narrows Bridge and all the money was spent on the S2S.


    • Yes, he and others have said a lot of things. Like on time and on budget… but they don’t say they keep changing the time and the budgets as they go…lol.


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