Lake Country mayor James Baker speaks at the opening of the new Highway 97.

Lake Country mayor James Baker speaks at the opening of the new Highway 97.

Mayor Baker sees new Highway 97 come to fruition

After years of lobbying James Baker looks back, and ahead, as new Highway 97 opens

Lake Country mayor James Baker has been talking about that old stretch of road that runs along Wood Lake for a long time and at a couple different levels of local government.

Baker was a member of the Central Okanagan Regional District when he was first involved in discussions over the old Highway 97, now Pelmewash Parkway.

So Baker was looking forward to what is next as well as back over years of work to get the highway replaced on Friday, when the new highway opened to traffic.

“It’s great that this finally comes to fruition,” said Baker, in a one-on-one interview with the Lake Country Calendar before making his public remarks at the opening of the highway. “We’ve been talking about this since the 1980s. First they were going to widen the highway, then they were going to four-lane it.”

As discussions on the highway and what to do with the stretch of road that was becoming more and more dangerous as traffic flows increased continued, Baker made his way from the regional district table to Lake Country council chambers.

“This really started in 2005 when we made it one of our priorities to get the road fixed up,” said Baker, who credited former Oyama ward councilor Noreen Guenther with putting a real push on the need for a new highway.

Now living and working in the private sector in Vernon, Guenther was there at the opening, proud to see the new highway opened after so many years of tragic accidents. It was safety that was on her mind as she attended the celebration with family.

“I’m really happy, this is something we worked on for years,” Guenther told the Calendar. “I know the new roadway won’t guarantee an accident won’t happen but it will give drivers the chance to do those accident avoidance techniques.”

One of the techniques Guenther used in her lobbying efforts over the years was to join together with the Jammery and create a specific jam for the old Highway 97 using the words traffic jam and a creative description to send to government.

“It was very important to keep on top of the issue especially being in a small community,” she said. “What we did with the jam was tried to grab the attention of everyone.”

And so for Lake Country council, now with Baker as its mayor, the time has come to create something new from the old highway. There have been public consultations and planning sessions and council is expected to see its first report from DLC staff in September.

Baker too was thinking of safety as he got set to open the new highway, but he was also excited for the future or Pelmewash.

“It’s just great,” he said. “We now have six kilometres of lake shore. It’s an old road but we can make it better. But this makes traffic so much safer. There are a lot of commuters between Vernon and Lake Country and Vernon and Kelowna and this really will make a difference.”