The B.C. government is a year overdue on its spring 2014 target of unveiling a detailed project scope and business plan to replace the Massey Tunnel with a new bridge.
But Transportation Minister Todd Stone insists the government remains on track to begin construction in 2017 on the new span between Delta and Richmond, and associated Highway 99 upgrades, and complete it by 2022.
Premier Christy Clark announced the decision to proceed with the project – as a bridge on the existing alignment – in September 2013, after two rounds of public and stakeholder consultation, and said the project scope and business case would be made public the following spring.
NDP transportation critic Claire Trevena said the failure to deliver a business plan before detailed design work began shows the province’s attitude continues to be “just do it and see what evolves” without solid evidence of what will be useful or cost-effective.
“Is this going to move the traffic problem further north?” she asked. “A real business case should address if this is the best way of dealing with that bottleneck.”
Project director Geoff Freer said more time was needed to do more traffic and engineering analysis.
The project definition report spelling out the proposed scope is expected to be released this fall, he said, followed by more consultation.
More work is ongoing but Freer said findings so far confirm the project team’s intent to build a new 10-lane bridge, with one of the extra lanes in each direction dedicated for HOV/transit.
Once the project report is tabled along with a cost estimate, decisions must be made about how to finance the project, whether as is widely assumed it will be tolled, and whether or not it will be a private-public partnership.
About $53 million is budgeted over the next two years on project planning.
Soft soil a concern
Soft soil in the river delta is a concern for engineers, so geotechnical drilling has been a major focus of the recent work.
Freer said drill holes on each side of the river had to go down through 315 metres of river silt – more than 1,000 feet – to reach glacial gravel, but added that doesn’t necessarily mean much higher costs or that pilings will have to be driven down that far.
He expects the Massey project cost will be “in the same ballpark” as the $3.3-billion Port Mann/Highway 1 project, but for a bridge with long graded approaches, much like the Alex Fraser Bridge.
Trevena said the potential effect of tolling the Highway 99 crossing must also be weighed.
“How are you going to make sure you don’t see the same problems we saw at the Port Mann?” she asked, referring to lower-than-expected toll revenue as some drivers choose free crossings.
Freer acknowledged tolls can reduce a bridge’s use but predicts it won’t be a factor at the Massey crossing.
“Regardless of whether you toll it or not because there’s so much congestion it probably wouldn’t change the scope in any way shape or form.”
He also said updated traffic estimates confirm that 60 per cent of the traffic through the tunnel is between Surrey, Delta and Richmond and not Vancouver.
Many of the trips ending in Richmond may be going to Vancouver via the Canada Line, he added.
Other data also shows port trucks make up only about two per cent of tunnel traffic, he said.
The Massey Tunnel doesn’t meet modern earthquake, width or height standards and major repairs to electrical and ventilation systems will be needed in about 10 years.
If a new Massey Bridge is tolled, it’s unclear whether a reformed tolling system might be in place in Metro Vancouver by the time it opens – area mayors want to pursue some form of road pricing.
Stone has said he is waiting for the results of the transit tax referendum in Metro Vancouver to see if TransLink is able to swiftly build a new tolled Pattullo Bridge.
He has promised a tolling policy review and has indicated reform would be required if both the Pattullo and Massey crossings are tolled.
A bridge too soon?
Canadian Taxpayers Federation B.C. director Jordan Bateman said the eventual business plan must be peer reviewed by other agencies to bolster public confidence.
Even then, he suggested, it may be premature for the province to commit to another bridge megaproject and perhaps wiser to wait and see how traffic patterns evolve from the opening of the South Fraser Perimeter Road and from a Pattullo rebuild.
“Obviously the Massey is a bottleneck, but the Pattullo is falling apart, so to me that’s the higher priority.”
Independent MLA Vicki Huntington asked in the legislature what Port Metro Vancouver will contribute to the project, since the port authority was a major proponent of the removal of the tunnel, which could open the Fraser River to larger ships.
She said the port has “gone totally silent” on the issue since the province committed to build the bridge.
Stone said the province will look at all potential funding partners, including the port.
Transportation ministry rendering of what a new bridge to replace the Massey Tunnel might look like.