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Pitt Meadows underpass becomes 3 times as expensive, with $50 million requested from city

‘This project is on life support,’ said mayor
The illustrated concept for the CP Rail underpass project located at Harris Road. (City of Pitt Meadows/Special to The News)

The future of the Harris Road underpass project is in jeopardy after the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority announced at Tuesday’s council meeting that the projected cost of the project had now more than tripled its original estimate.

READ MORE: Pitt Meadows railway underpass project back before the public

Devan Fitch, program director for the port authority, explained that the sudden change to the price tag was due to many different factors, but cited construction cost inflation rates as one of the biggest contributors.

Breakdown of project cost of Harris Road underpass project. (Vancouver Fraser Port Authority/Special to The News)
Breakdown of project cost of Harris Road underpass project. (Vancouver Fraser Port Authority/Special to The News)

As a result, what was originally estimated to be a $63.3 million project will now cost a total of approximately $195 million.

“We have a very large funding gap to close if the project is to move forward,” said Fitch.

“Almost every stone we turned over in this case was hiding something unpleasant which costs more money. The silver lining is that at this point, we have run out of stones to turn over.”

“One of the biggest changes in cost is related to new design requirements. A good example of that is the change in seismic design code. Essentially, we are required to now design and construct that Harris Road underpass for a much larger and more powerful earthquake.”

Fitch explained that the port authority explored every avenue they could think of in order to help reduce the cost of the underpass, but was unable to find a solution that everyone could agree on.

“The only meaningful way to save costs – in our view – is to switch to an overpass,” said Fitch.

“We’ve done some studies and proven that this is technically feasible. We also believe that it achieves the key interests of partners around public safety, eliminating travel time delays, emergency response reliability, noise mitigation, active transportation, heritage building relocations, and efficiency of operations along the rail corridor to support Canada’s national trade objectives.”

“We’ve shared this information with the city and we understand that the city is not supportive of moving forward with an overpass with their view of the adverse impacts that this would have on the community.”

RELATED: Otter Co-op in Pitt Meadows closed for railway underpass

As a result of this new $195 million price tag, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority is now asking the City of Pitt Meadows to cover 25 per cent of the total cost, up to a maximum of $49.6 million.

But contributing such a large sum of money is not something the city can do quickly, or potentially even at all, explained Mayor Nicole MacDonald.

“The ask for almost $50 million is not something that is within the council’s independent purview,” said MacDonald. “That would need a referendum.”

“In order to pursue this, the city would be shifting from the fundamental core principle of not being a funding partner. Obviously, that’s a complete change in direction.”

Former mayor Bill Dingwall also took a turn on the mic during the open questions and comments period to voice his opinion on the sudden news.

“This is just devastating,” said Dingwall.

“I know we started with $142 million and the federal government is going to kick in another $11 million, which takes us to $153 million, but now there’s an ask for the city to pay about 25 per cent. From my humble background, there’s absolutely no way. That’s more than our whole year’s budget.”

Instead, Dingwall called on CP Rail and the federal government to help ease the financial burden being shifted onto the small city.

“The federal government and Canadian Pacific need to step up,” he said. “This needs to happen and they need to put the bulk of the money in. Even $5 million would be hard for the City of Pitt Meadows.”

RELATED: Dingwall looks back on eight years at Pitt Meadows city hall

According to the City of Pitt Meadows, meeting this nearly $50 million ask from the port authority would result in an approximate tax increase of $300, or nearly 12 per cent, for the average single-family home.

The port authority called on the city to make a provisional commitment to the project by April 14, with Fitch warning that each month of delay would add a further $1 million to the estimated budget.

He also said that this is an incredibly urgent project, with the port authority identifying the Harris Road crossing as one of the top 500 riskiest railways crossings in the entire country, putting it in the top three per cent on a priority basis.

“In 2019, we estimated that the level crossing arms for Harris Road were in the down position blocking the movement of people for about three-and-a-half hours per day,” explained Fitch. “With our forecasts for increase in trade volume coming to and from the Port of Vancouver, we anticipate that time to roughly double.”

However, Mayor MacDonald explained that this would not be a fast process and the city still had a lot to figure out before such a commitment could be made.

“We don’t have the answers at this point,” said MacDonald. “This will potentially be an all-hands-on-deck community decision. There will be an ask for feedback and engagement. There have already been reach outs to the province and our ministers.”

“This project is on life support at this moment.”

Pitt Meadows CAO Mark Roberts said that regardless of what happens with the potential referendum, the city would still try to pursue similar efforts to ease traffic concerns surrounding CP Rail operations.

“We feel at the staff level that this is critical infrastructure and will continue to be a priority for council and staff no matter what the outcome is through this process,” said Roberts. “We will be moving forward with avenues to advocate regardless of anything to attempt to move forward the project in some fashion in the future.”

CP Rail also had a representative at the council meeting, but solely spoke on updates regarding the third rail line being installed just south of Lougheed Highway.

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Brandon Tucker

About the Author: Brandon Tucker

I have been a journalist since 2013, with much of my career spent covering sports and entertainment stories in Alberta.
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