Metro Vancouver’s regional board says it can’t support the province’s $3.5-billion plan to replace the Massey Tunnel, at least not the proposed 10-lane bridge.
Regional district politicians have released an assessment critical of the project, arguing the proposed bridge will have a dramatic impact on regional growth, steer more people into cars instead of public transit, and ultimately increase not decrease congestion.
Metro utilities committee chair Darrell Mussatto said the regional government estimates it will be forced to spend $20 million to $340 million replacing or modifying water and other utility lines under the river because of the project, and the bill for Metro could rise to as much as $1 billion if the port authority seeks to dredge the Fraser River for increased shipping and underwater utilities must be dug deeper.
“We definitely disagree with a 10-lane bridge,” Metro board chair Greg Moore, adding something between four and 10 lanes might be more acceptable. “We know from experience around the world you can’t build your way out of congestion.”
Moore said regional planners are concerned such a huge expansion of the bridge and Highway 99 will increase pressure to develop farmland and undermine Metro’s regional growth strategy of containing urban development.
The region also cites concerns with ecological disruption to the Fraser estuary, air quality impacts if all 10 lanes end up clogged with idling traffic and impacts on Deas Island Regional Park.
Mussatto said the new Port Mann Bridge has sped workers further along Highway 1 but they slam into major congestion at the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge to the North Shore.
He predicts the Oak Street Bridge will also end up a “very big pinch point” after the Massey bridge is built, and possibly the Knight Street Bridge as well.
The B.C. transportation ministry rejects concerns that unclogging the Massey bottleneck will merely move the current Highway 99 bottleneck down to the Oak Street Bridge, citing data showing most traffic stops in Richmond rather than continuing to Vancouver.
The province argues the existing tunnel is nearing the end of its life and must be replaced – a claim some mayors doubt.
Transportation Minister Todd Stone said that although some seismic upgrades were performed on the tunnel in 2008, engineers advised the tunnel could be damaged and made unusable if further seismic upgrades were done.
“If British Columbia was hit with a moderately significant earthquake, the tunnel would be seriously damaged or destroyed, cutting off this lifeline during an emergency and for months or years after,” Stone said in an emailed statement.
He said the tunnel has 10 years life left before major components like lighting, ventilation and pumping systems must be replaced.
The B.C. government this month filed its application to the Agricultural Land Commission as part of the permitting process for the bridge.
Stone says it will actually result in an overall net increase in ALR land in Delta and Richmond when the project is finished, because it will result in the return of unused highway right-of-way for farming.
Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie disputes that, saying he believes farmland that is added to the ALR is likely to be inferior to what is removed.
“They talk about changing the on and off ramps so that there will be some property reclaimed by the adjacent farmers,” Brodie said. “We’ll have to wait and see how much of that and is actually usable. We are still very concerned about agricultural impacts.”
Metro will continue to participate in the province’s environmental assessment of the project now underway. The region has previously called for a federal review as well.
Delta Mayor Lois Jackson is furious with Metro’s decision to oppose the Massey bridge.
“I’m so angry about how this was conducted I’m vibrating,” she said of the closed-door Metro board vote on June 24.
Jackson, a strong supporter of the project, said she was limited to five minutes to respond to a barrage of misinformation from other mayors.
She insisted Metro water lines are not close to the project. (A staff report indicates the Lulu Island-Delta Main line under the river won’t be forced to relocate by bridge construction but it may be affected later if the removal of the tunnel changes the river’s hydraulics.)
Jackson accused other Metro mayors of “fighting a provincial election” through the project by trying to defeat it and then steer the money to transit projects in Vancouver and Surrey instead.
“It has nothing to do with transportation in my opinion.”
She rejects the argument 10 lanes are excessive.
Jackson noted the use of the counterflow at peak times means there are effectively three lanes in each direction now. After that, she said, the project creates one new HOV/bus lane in each direction and another lane dedicated for trucks.
“It isn’t a stretch,” she said, adding it will also preserve the option to extend a rapid transit line over the bridge without having to build a separate one.
Jackson has also been urging the province to immediately toll the Massey Tunnel along with all other crossings of the river rather than waiting for the tolled Massey Bridge to force a long-promised review of the province’s tolling policy.
Supporters say tolling existing crossings as soon as possible at peak times at least could significantly improve congestion now by tamping down traffic volumes at the worst times, while also making transit more cost-competitive.
Moore said he favours a careful study of road pricing rather than a rush to impose tolls on all bridges.
Buses make up one per cent of trips through the tunnel now but carry 24 per cent of the people going through it and Moore argued more emphasis on transit as an alternative to single occupant vehicles could increase that further.