Embracing a recommendation by Metro Vancouver mayors for a new eight-lane tunnel to replace the traffic-choked four-lane George Massey tunnel is a choice the B.C. NDP government may regret.
One of the first major decisions of Premier John Horgan and Transportation Minister Claire Trevena on taking office in 2017 was to scrap plans for a 10-lane bridge. A bridge similar to the new Port Mann crossing would have been well underway by now. Instead, the NDP government chose to make a hugely expensive point about avoiding tolls and consulting with the quarrelsome councils of the Lower Mainland.
Delta South B.C. Liberal MLA Ian Paton has been a fierce critic of delays in fixing what everyone agrees is the worst traffic bottleneck in the province. Like many others, he was surprised that floating new tunnel sections into the Lower Fraser, sinking them and linking them, is the new plan.
Paton estimates that the bridge would be half done by now, and starting from scratch with engineering and environmental work for a tunnel means relief for commuters is now 10 years away. An eight-lane bridge would benefit from engineering work already done.
The tunnel requires removal of 1.5 million cubic metres of salt-contaminated soil to trench the river bottom, which would somehow have to be stabilized for earthquake safety along with the lengthy approaches from both sides. This in-river work invokes federal fisheries law, forcing construction into a narrow summer window. That’s if it gets environmental approval, which could take three years or more.
Then there’s the money. Horgan won his bare minority government on a promise to remove tolls from the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges, moving their massive debt onto the province’s capital budget. A “business case” for the new project may take a year, so the usual string of pre-election announcements in 2021 may not be well received.
And obviously the NDP’s union-only public construction model weighs heavily on projects like this. After a huge overrun on a short piece of Trans-Canada Highway widening near Revelstoke, the ministry insists it is on budget for its four-lane replacement of the four-lane Pattullo Bridge. We’ll see.
As the municipal task force was gathering to make their surprise choice to reject a down-scaled bridge that looks like the logical option, Horgan was asked if his government was wasting time.
“I wouldn’t say for a second that it’s been a waste of time,” Horgan said, adding that he met with the mayor of Delta and was looking forward to financing whatever the mayors want. Trevena repeated the comments a few hours later, after the tunnel recommendation emerged. First it has to be costed, then go to cabinet, then the Treasury Board to find the money as the province teeters on the edge of returning to deficits.
The next day Horgan was off to Seattle to once again join Gov. Jay Inslee in pitching a bullet train from Portland to Vancouver, at unimaginable cost. Horgan put $600,000 toward a “business case” for that, which found that eventually it “may be viable” if routes and state-federal governance can be figured out.
Drivers stuck in the Massey tunnel for the next decade will have time to admire a $40 million spruce-up of our 60-year-old earthquake trap. Scheduled for completion by the end of 2020, it includes new paint, lighting, drainage to keep ice from forming, and a good washing of the dank interior walls.
Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press Media. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org