'Dream' of Sicamous to Kelowna Rail Trail quickly becoming a reality | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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'Dream' of Sicamous to Kelowna Rail Trail quickly becoming a reality

Work has started in earnest on building the Shuswap North Okanagan Rail Trial with funding in place to complete about 44 of the 50 km route.
Image Credit: Submitted/Shuswap North Okanagan Rail Trail

Back in 2020, when the projected cost of building the Shuswap North Okanagan Rail Trail jumped to almost $23 million from $13 million, it seems like an almost impossible dream.

“That freaked us all out,” Phil McIntyre-Paul, senior consultant with the Shuswap Trail Alliance, told iNFOnews.ca. “At the time, we almost went: ‘Oh well. We can’t pull this off.’”

But construction of the 50-km rail trail is finally starting to happen. The organizers have now raised $15.5 million of the roughly $17 million they now expect the project to cost.

The $23 million estimate, which freaked them out so much, included a 40% contingency factor from engineers. With community contributions, the actual cost is expected to be much lower.

READ MORE: Sicamous to Armstrong rail-trail estimated to cost $10M more than predicted

“All the funding has been secured for Sicamous to kilometre 42.6 at Stepney Crossroad (just north of Armstrong),” McIntyre-Paul said. “That’s the work that’s currently getting going.”

The Splatsin Band has already cleaned out culverts in anticipation of the spring freshet. Rock scaling will begin in the next couple of weeks, which means the entire route is closed to the public.

It’s still going to take about three years to get the whole trail opened, maybe four.

Whole chunks of the trail along Mara Lake have been eroded away. It will likely take until next year just to get the permits necessary to do the repair work on that section.

The toughest piece will be the still-unfunded overpass of Highway 97 near Armstrong.

That’s estimated to cost $2.5 million.

“Weirdly, now we’re sort of catching ourselves: ‘Did we just use the word just?’” McIntyre-Paul said. “We said we 'just' have to raise $2.5 million for the overpass, whereas before we were devastated: ‘How are we ever going to raise all that money?’”

Given the magnitude of the overpass project, it may be 2027 before it’s finished.

That means the 42.6 km to Stepney Crossroad will fall about 6 km short of the final stretch on the other side of the highway into Armstrong.

A $500,000 grant from the province along with $160,000 each from the North Okanagan and Shuswap Columbia regional districts will extend the trail from Lansdowne Road in Spallumcheen to Smith Drive in Armstrong.

It's unique because it will run on the south side of the still active CN Rail line, separated by a fence.

CN Rail started decommissioning the Shuswap North Okanagan rail line in 2009. That process was not completed until 2014. Part of it was bought by the Splatsin Nation that same year, according to Shuswap North Okanagan Rail Trail’s website.

The next year, the band invited local governments to work with them so the rest of the line was purchased by the North Okanagan and the Columbia Shuswap regional districts as of December 2017.

It’s been the cooperation between all the different jurisdictions and levels of government that made it possible to overcome their fear and pull the trail together.

“It's such a major collective exercise,” McIntyre-Paul said. “We’re all small rural communities so we don’t have the same kind of big city capacity (as the Okanagan Rail Trail from Coldstream to Kelowna). We worked together and said, let’s do this and the province and the feds supported it, then all the donors and businesses stepped up.

“You’ve got 12 different regional and first nations governments working together. You’ve got provincial and federal support for this because it addresses things like active transportation, a whole new tourism destination engagement and greenhouse gas emissions. It meets all those objectives and there’s been funding support from all the communities to do this. It’s really just kudos to all the leadership that said: ‘Let’s do this. There’s no reason why we can’t work this out.’”

There’s still a lot of work to be done so McIntyre-Paul doesn’t want to predict when the trail will actually be fully opened.

“We’ve all learned that giving times is just getting us into trouble because something always comes up,” he said.

The target is to open some parts of the trail, like a “test section” near Enderby, by late this year or early in 2024.

Efforts are underway to get the funding in place for the overpass within the next 18 to 24 months so the work to get that built can start as other parts of the trail are finished. He’s thinking, however, that may not be done until 2027.

The trail is currently closed for construction work but there is a section near Belvedere Park in Enderby that is accessible now.

“As pieces get completed, the goal is those pieces will get open and people can get out and walk and touch and feel the trail,” McIntyre-Paul said.

The two major gaps between Armstrong and Kelowna could be closed by the time the Shuswap North Okanagan Rail Trail is fully opened.

One is the roughly six kilometres along Duck Lake to Kelowna Airport that’s still waiting for the federal government to turn land over to the Okanagan Indian Band so the Okanagan Rail Trail can finally be finished.

READ MORE: Completion of final section Okanagan Rail Trail hinges on federal gov't approval

A call for proposals has gone out in the hopes that stretch can be opened by the end of this summer.

Then there’s the Armstrong to Coldstream section that the Ribbons of Green Trails Society is working on.

READ MORE: iN VIDEO: How 'Canada's biggest water system' took Vernon from cattle to fruit

The CN Rail line is active in that area so alternative routes are being considered in order to connect the two rail trails.

The major bottleneck is the Highway 97 overpass of the rail line in Vernon. There’s not enough room along the rail line for a trail. The hope is that, when the overpass is refurbished due to crumbling concrete in its pillars, adjustments can be made to make room for a trail.

While there is lots of excitement about all this coming together, it will still take time.

“We just have to be patient because there’s quite a lot of complexity,” McIntyre-Paul said. “But, I’m still touching wood. The reality is now a possible dream. It’s now a dream that everyone is implementing.”

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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