Sunshine Access Road Overflow Parking – Where Will It Stop?

With only a few months left until the new ski season, park visitors can look forward to more unsafe mayhem and congestion on the Sunshine Village Access Road.   What’s the purpose to having a lease if Sunshine Village can just ignore it and take over adjacent areas of Banff National Park and a public roadway and do as it pleases?  Why does Parks Canada condone it ?

On multiple days during the ski season when the Bourgeau parking area at Sunshine Village becomes full, customers are routinely directed by Sunshine Village employees to park their vehicles along the side of the access road.  On a busy day cars are often parked along almost the entire length of the access road from the lease boundary at Bourgeau to the Healy Creek trailhead and parking lot, a distance of 8.5 km.  Sunshine Village runs this parking operation which includes;

  • Placement of signage designating shuttle bus stops along the public access road.
  • Operation of shuttle busses solely to transport, pick-up and drop-off Sunshine Village customers along the length of the public access road.
  •  Placement of Sunshine Village employees on the public access road to stop, direct and park traffic.

The extended parking operation gives rise to numerous concerns including the following:

  1. Year after year, Sunshine Village has repeatedly and routinely extended its parking operations well beyond its lease boundary and is now using up to 8.5 km of public roadway in Banff National Park as an overflow parking lot.
  2. Vehicles are parked in very close vicinity to known active avalanche paths.
  3. Traffic control by Sunshine Village employees may result in vehicles becoming delayed, stopped or even stuck in the middle of the road in avalanche paths, areas of poor traction and in areas of poor visibility.
  4. The roadway is obviously not designed for a high-intensity mid-winter parking operation.  The use of the road to park cars results in narrowing of the available road surface which can be further narrowed by encroaching snowbanks.  When cars are parked along the access road there is often insufficient room for two vehicles to safely pass each other in opposing directions.
  5. Members of the public (including children) are dropped off and picked-up at various locations and are subject to increased risk of injury or death from moving vehicles on the roadway (including cars, buses, commercial trucks, snowplows and emergency vehicles) as they try to manage ski or snowboard equipment, control children and access their vehicle or the shuttle bus.
  6. Members of the public whose vehicles are parked on the access road are often less experienced with tasks and safety cautions associated with the environment they find themselves in.
  7. During mid-winter the access road activity occurs during periods of low daylight or even darkness and members of the public are left on the roadway without benefit of any assistance or lights to guide them or to warn approaching vehicles of their presence.
  8. The period of highest pedestrian activity along the access road coincides with the period of highest egress traffic flow as the Bourgeau parking lot empties and a steady stream of vehicles travels back down the access road towards Banff.  At the same time, shuttle buses are dropping off crowds of customers all along the same roadway.
  9. The speed limit on the roadway does not reflect the hazards associated with, and created by the parking operations and is inconsistent with the much lower speed limits in effect in the main Bourgeau parking lot.
  10. Emergency vehicles (which regularly respond to the ski area) may be delayed by the parking operations, traffic control, narrowed carriageway and excessive numbers of people on the road who may be encountered at any time and any location along the roadway.
  11. Every season there are incidents where vehicles slide off the road or into another vehicle.  How long will it be before one of these incidents includes a pedestrian family trying to get back to their car?
  12. The road is regularly used for day-time deliveries by large trucks including semis and multiple large buses.  At times these deliveries include dangerous goods such as explosives for avalanche control and bulk diesel, gasoline and propane.
  13. Sunshine Village is not the only reason this road is used.  Park visitors use the road to access the back-country.  These visitors are significantly inconvenienced by Sunshine Village operations on the roadway.
  14. It’s unclear what legal authority Sunshine Village has to stop and/or direct traffic on a public roadway or what type of training its employees have for this work.  This workplace is no longer the parking lot it is a public roadway with all the associated hazards.
  15. It’s unclear to what extent Parks Canada and the taxpayers will have to bear the costs of any liability arising from this operation.  As this area is outside the lease on a public road the legal consequences of an injury or fatality may be quite different from an incident within the Sunshine Village lease.
  16. How much garbage results from this operation.  There are no garbage bins placed at the shuttle-bus stops.  Who is responsible for a garbage check and clean-up along the access road and how far does that extend to either side of the road for garbage pushed off by snowplows or blown by the wind.  Sunshine Village reduced its on-hill summer clean-up crews to a skeleton staff this past summer.  It’s unlikely they bothered with the access road.
  17. To what extent does this intensive parking operation result in toxic spills from fluid leaks.  Hundreds of vehicles parked on a repeated basis throughout the winter has a cumulative effect that that has not been designed for.  Who is monitoring and assessing this possible effect on the adjacent lands and run-off?
  18. To what extent does the parking operation impact wildlife along such a long unbroken length of repetitive high-intensity activity. This area is known to be frequented by black and grizzly bears, cougars, wolves, ungulates and other wildlife.  Sunshine Village operates from early November to late May and use of the road for parking is completely at the company’s discretion during that period yet no wildlife monitoring seems to be associated with the operation.
  19. The intensive roadside parking operation is not consistent with the minimum public safety, environmental and visitor service standards that should be expected of a world-class destination like Banff National Park.

It is apparent that Sunshine Village has adopted this overflow parking as a routine part of its operations and is using the public road on an ad-hoc basis as an extension of the parking lot beyond the designated lease boundary.  This practice is being done to increase the company’s parking capacity in excess of that available by complying with the existing footprint and lease boundary.

It’s maybe time that someone started asking some questions about all this, such as:

  1. On what basis is Parks Canada permitting and regulating the access road parking operations by Sunshine Village and pursuant to what empowering legislative and regulatory provisions and due process?
  2. Is there any provision for an additional financial payment or compensation by Sunshine Village to Parks Canada for the additional land use?
  3. What due diligence and public consultation process has occurred (if any) and when?  In particular have there been a related public safety study (including snow safety study for related avalanche hazards), an Environmental Impact Assessment and wildlife studies and any related consultations with municipal emergency services, RCMP, special interest groups, external experts and/or the provincial government transportation regulators.  To what extent does any due diligence and public consultation support the current extended parking operations on the access road?
  4. Has Parks Canada required and approved a Sunshine Village operations and parking plan to mitigate identified hazards and designate emergency response roles and responsibilities arising from the operation (e.g. Motor Vehicle Accident, Avalanche)? Ski Patrollers are told that their response area ends at the parking lot lease boundary, yet clearly the company’s parking operations go well beyond that point with no emergency response plan.
  5. How does the extended parking operations at Sunshine Village comply with the 2006 Parks Canada Ski Area Management Guidelines, which specifically restrict any consideration of parking lot improvements at Sunshine Village to the “existing footprint” and which does not result in “incremental expansion”.
  6. If the lease boundary is not the perimeter of allowable Sunshine Village parking operations where is the perimeter?
  7. What is Parks Canada’s proposed strategy to properly manage this issue in the future, or maybe there is no plan and it will just continue indefinitely?
  8. What does this obvious overflow situation say about other impacts at the ski area? For example if the parking lot is no longer sufficient for visitor numbers, is the ageing sewage treatment plant also in danger of exceeding capacity?

Perhaps the most important question for the future management and integrity of the Mountain Parks is should we be expecting more from the federal government agency charged with regulating commercial activity within the parks?  It appears that Parks Canada has gradually permitted increased on-hill capacity at Sunshine Village without ever considering or addressing parking capacity limitations.  This exposes a serious flaw in the practice of permitting the replacement and upgrade of facilities on existing footprint in the absence of a comprehensive long-range plan for the operation.  Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.  Give them a permit to replace a lift and they’ll take another 2km of public roadway to park the extra cars.  This short-sighted approach to ski area planning in the park has resulted in a ridiculous, inappropriate and unsafe situation for which there appears to be no solution or intention of finding one.

It doesn’t take a rocket-scientist to understand that any development that increases capacity increases related impacts, even if restricted to existing footprint on-hill, as in the case of replacing a fixed grip double or triple chair with a high speed detachable quad chair or replacing the gondola and increasing its capacity and speed.  By progressively adding on-hill capacity beyond the available parking capacity the company’s operational impacts have been allowed to overflow in a seemingly unregulated manner beyond the lease boundary, which detrimentally affects adjacent areas of the Park as well as public safety and visitor experience.  It’s pretty simple math really – the trouble is that no one at Parks Canada seems to be putting 2 and 2 together.

The above photo less than a kilometer from the Trans-Canada highway shows the Sunshine Village access road during Christmas week 2010. This photo depicts many of the problems associated with the overflow parking use of the public road by Sunshine Village.  These include:

  • The Sunshine Village shuttle-bus is stopped to pick-up passengers in an area of poor visibility greatly narrowing and congesting the roadway right at the top of the most slippery hill section on the road at the “rock cut” corner.
  • Sunshine Village employees are stopping and directing traffic on a public road.
  • The available road surface is clearly narrowed considerably yet large vehicles, including emergency vehicles have to negotiate this narrow road.
  • Members of the public are wandering across the road with equipment in an area of high congestion with a slippery road surface and insufficient safety controls.

In a few months it will start all over again with yet another season of Sunshine Village overflowing its lease boundary and parking cars and blocking traffic on an avalanche threatened, narrow, winding, slippery, low-visibility snow-covered public road in contravention of simple principles of basic common sense and best safety practices not to mention numerous pieces of legislation.  Meanwhile Parks Canada blissfully turns a blind eye to it all and seems to be content to continue to do so.  Does Sunshine Village have a blank check from Parks Canada to park cars all the way to Banff.  Where does it stop?  Is Parks Canada even capable of fulfilling its mandate these days?  Take a drive up the Sunshine Village access road during the Christmas / New Year peak period and see for yourself.  This type of congestion and lack of planning is more commonly associated with inner-city traffic gridlock and certainly isn’t what most people would consider to be a “world-class experience” for visitors to Canada’s most famous national park.

Does anyone at Parks Canada even care?

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Parks Canada has been invited to provide comment on the issues raised above and will be given space on this site for those comments to be posted verbatim.

If you have safety, environment or other questions about the Parks Canada management plan (or lack of one) for the Sunshine Village access road please contact:

Ms. Pam Veinotte – Superintendent, Banff National Park
Parks Canada Agency
PO Box 900
Banff, AB
T1L 1K2 

Email: banff.superintendent@pc.gc.ca
Phone: 1-888-WARDENS (1-888-927-3367)

or use the online contact form at:
http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/ab/banff/courriel-email-superintendent.aspx

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