Premier Christy Clark’s pledge to replace the George Massey Tunnel with a bridge was the biggest news to come out of the annual Union of B.C. Municipalities convention, and the new bridge will have a major impact on Delta, Surrey and White Rock.
Clark said construction will begin in 2017, which (not by coincidence) is an election year. The Liberals would dearly like to win back the Delta South seat, which independent MLA Vicki Huntington has now won twice.
But the bridge is not tied to an election as much as it is the latest in a series of replacements of aging major river and lake crossings by the BC Liberals.
The biggest one, of course, is the new Port Mann Bridge, but there is also the Pitt River Bridge, the W.R. Bennett Bridge in Kelowna and the Kicking Horse bridge east of Golden on Highway 1.
In doing so, the Liberals have positioned themselves as builders of infrastructure on a scale comparable to that done by premiers W.A.C. Bennett and Bill Bennett. This has always been popular in B.C. and serves to position the province for future growth.
In the case of the Deas Island crossing, a new bridge would serve a number of purposes. It would ease congestion in the tunnel, which cannot be expanded. It would eliminate the need for seismic upgrades. Perhaps most importantly, it would make it possible for larger ships with deeper drafts to come up the Fraser River and use Fraser Surrey Docks, which are underutilized. Ships are getting larger and larger and a deep river channel is vital in attracting new business.
There are many legitimate concerns. One is that the bridge will funnel too much traffic onto crossings further north, such as the Oak Street and Knight Street bridges. The Oak Street bridge was built at the same time as the tunnel, and is also a candidate for replacement.
The Knight Street is newer, but both it and the Oak Street are already heavily congested at rush hour.
Another is the strong possibility that the bridge will be tolled.
While tolls are a legitimate way to pay for new infrastructure, there does need to be a fairer way to levy them. Many mayors, such as Surrey’s Dianne Watts, have suggested regional tolling, with a much smaller fee of 50 cents or $1 to cross all major river crossings. Road pricing has also been mentioned.
Some planners are expressing concern that there is little discussion of how transit fits into the new bridge. They also question this announcement, in the light of the fact that there is a stalemate on TransLink funding and expansion of the transit system.
They are ignoring politics. Premiers often make major announcements at the UBCM convention.
There will be plenty of discussion about TransLink in the coming months, as there is more dialogue about a referendum that is scheduled to take place next year.
In addition, transit service on Highway 99 is and will be much less frequent than it should be over the Port Mann.
That’s simply because the population of Delta, South Surrey and White Rock is much lighter than in the remainder of Surrey and Langley, and the Fraser Valley beyond. Growth will be on a smaller scale in the areas served by Highway 99. The Highway 1 corridor is where the emphasis on transit needs to be – along with expanded rapid transit in Surrey.
The buses that use Highway 99 now connect to the Canada Line at Bridgeport station, and the new bridge will simply make the bus trip even faster. A new bridge will in no way impede transit service.
It is important that farmland in Richmond and Delta is not impacted by the new bridge, but given that it is replacing a tunnel, that should be much easier to achieve than if a second bridge was involved.
The premier has identified a need and is working to do something about it. That’s good news for the fast-growing population south of the Fraser River.
Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.