Local politics has stirred up the debate on the George Massey Tunnel replacement project thanks to the new NDP government’s lukewarm reception of the proposed bridge.
On Monday, July 24, Richmond council endorsed a report on the George Massey Tunnel replacement project and voted to send it to Premier John Horgan along with a letter requesting that he suspend all work associated with the project and consider alternatives to the 10-lane bridge.
In his report, Richmond transportation director Victor Wei recommended further seismic upgrading to the current tunnel. He also recommended two solutions to reduce congestion: twinning the tunnel, or adding a two-lane bus and HOV-only tunnel.
The report, which was approved by a vote of eight-to-one, said council “recognizes the urgent need to address significant traffic congestion around the tunnel,” but that council’s “concerns are related to the specific current proposal to address congestion.”
The “specific current proposal” is the 10-lane bridge enthusiastically endorsed by Delta Mayor Lois Jackson and strongly opposed by the other members of the Metro Vancouver Mayors’ Council, which includes all municipalities that use TransLink.
On July 10, Delta council unanimously approved Chief Administrative Officer George Harvie’s report outlining the urgent need for the new bridge. The report was actually released to the public on July 5, before being approved by council.
“It’s always been basically [the provincial government’s] project, and it’s pretty hard to speak to somebody else’s project all the time and defend it,” Mayor Lois Jackson said at a press briefing on July 10, prior to council’s vote. “But we’re definitely doing that now.”
Delta’s 11-page report, along with several hundred pages of appendices, was sent out to then-Premier Christy Clark, then-Premier-designate John Horgan, Green party leader Andrew Weaver, all members of the legislative assembly, Delta MP Carla Qualtrough, all board members of Metro Vancouver, the Vancouver Board of Trade, the Surrey Board of Trade, the Greater Vancouver Gateway Council, and the Delta, Richmond, South Surrey, White Rock and B.C. Chambers of Commerce.
Delta North MLA Ravi Kahlon was one of the MLAs to receive Delta’s report. He said there was nothing new in Delta’s release, a statement echoed in Richmond’s report.
“We agreed that we need more capacity through that area,” Kahlon said in a phone interview before the Richmond report was released. “The question is what it looks like.”
One of the ways Kahlon said the NDP is planning to address the entire region is to remove tolls on all bridges over the Fraser River. He said this will lessen some of the congestion on busy crossings like the Alex Fraser Bridge and the George Massey Tunnel.
Kahlon said the NDP government, which has officially been in power since July 18, is planning to look at transportation in the Lower Mainland “in a strategic way to address the entire region, and not one offs.”
“It’s important for us to take a step back and review that plan overall, and come forward to the public with our vision,” he said.
For Jackson, who has accused Kahlon of toeing the NDP party line rather than doing what she believes is best for Delta, taking a step back and reviewing the plan is the last thing the government should be doing.
“I don’t know why they’re not going ahead with it when there’s such a need for it,” Jackson said. “I think there’s more politics at play here than there is common sense.”
Of course, that’s a criticism that cuts both ways, with Kahlon noting that Jackson’s personal politics could also be playing a part in her endorsement of the bridge.
“The mayor has a lot of political capital in on this bridge,” he said. “I mean, she made the big endorsement during the election regarding this. So I understand that she’s got a very personal attachment to this bridge.”
During the election, it was widely reported that Horgan, if elected, would defer the decision about the George Massey Tunnel to the Mayors’ Council.
On April 9, at the start of the NDP’s election campaign, Horgan said, “we’re going to work with the Mayors’ Council … The Massey Tunnel replacement project is not supported by the local mayors.”
This statement was not taken well by Jackson and Delta CAO George Harvie.
“This is provincial infrastructure,” Harvie said about the tunnel during the July 10 press briefing, adding the Mayors’ Council “has no responsibility, no funding, to come in.”
According to Kahlon, the NDP never said they would defer the decision to the Mayors’ Council.
“We never actually said we’d give it to the Mayors’ Council,” he said. “Our position from the beginning has been that we believe that the transit congestion in the region needs to be done in a strategic way to address the entire region.”
Another point brought up by Harvie on July 10 was the money that’s already been spent on the project. Harvie likened the George Massey Tunnel replacement bridge to a house purchase falling through: “if you bought a house, and you got the mortgage approved, you don’t magically keep that money. It stays with the house.”
Site preparation for the bridge started in April under the then-Liberal government. Two contracts were awarded for the work: $11.5 million to Hall Constructors and $5.8 million B&B Heavy Civil Construction of Surrey.
Hall Constructors’ preparation is 60 to 70 per cent complete, according to president Dennis Hall. Contractors are paid monthly for the work they do, meaning that the province has already paid Hall Constructors somewhere in the realm of $7 million.
Kahlon said that money spent by a previous government isn’t going to push the NDP into making a decision on the George Massey replacement project right away.
“We’re not going to rush to spend money until we’ve thoughtfully put a plan together,” Kahlon said. “Just because they spent money on doing some of the prep work doesn’t mean we should spend $3.5 billion … on a bridge that we haven’t had a chance to review.”
A decision on the George Massey Tunnel replacement project likely won’t be made any time soon.
B.C.’s newly minted Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Claire Trevena was unavailable for an interview on the George Massey Tunnel replacement project before the Reporter’s print deadline, in part because she hadn’t yet been fully briefed on her portfolio.
For Delta Counc. Sylvia Bishop, it’s not really about how the tunnel is replaced, whether with Delta’s bridge or Richmond’s twinned tunnel.
“I’m not endorsing either,” she said. “I want the congestion problems and the safety problems addressed.
“The decision of what it’s going to be is going to be made by the provincial government.”
Bishop said she was supportive of a 10-lane bridge because that’s what she understood the majority of Delta residents to want. But if another, equally-priced solution came up, she doesn’t think residents are “particularly wedded to the 10-lane bridge.”
Richmond’s report includes options for twinning the tunnel or adding another two-lane high occupancy tunnel are equal to or less than the $3.5 billion estimated for the replacement bridge. In the Delta report, and in appendices to the Richmond report, these options are shown to be more expensive than the replacement bridge. This is because the Richmond report doesn’t take into account work on interchanges or seismic upgrades to the existing tunnel, and also envisions fewer lanes than the provincial review of replacement options.
Regardless of the what option is eventually chosen to alleviate congestion between Ladner and Richmond, Bishop wants a something done about safety in the tunnel now.
“We can’t wait for a bridge to start. We can’t wait for some solution,” she said. “The tunnel safety issues have to be addressed right now. It’s going to cost a lot less than $3.5 billion to do so while we wait for either the bridge to start, or whatever it is going to be.”