By R. Bruce Striegler

“This will be the largest bridge ever built in B.C. When completed, it will address what is now the worst traffic bottleneck in the province,” said B.C.’s Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Todd Stone. The George Massey Tunnel currently carries traffic under the Fraser River from Vancouver, through Richmond and Delta, to the U.S. border. In 2013, the B.C. government announced plans to replace the tunnel with a bridge, and is planning on construction to begin in 2017. While traffic congestion on the main route to the U.S. is extremely heavy, there has been plenty of public speculation the bridge is being built to allow for more trade and larger ships using the Fraser River. Freedom of Information requests from Vancouver media showed Vancouver Fraser Port Authority and Fraser Surrey Docks LP lobbied hard in favour of scrapping the tunnel, a move that would allow larger ships to ply the south arm of the Fraser River.

The Minister in his public appearances touts the benefits of the bridge as creating improved traffic flow, less pollution and preservation of rapidly disappearing farmland in B.C.’s lower mainland. “The new bridge will improve highway safety, reduce greenhouse gas emissions from unnecessary idling, and save rush-hour commuters up to 30 minutes a day,” says Stone. Studies put forward by the province show that current congestion at the tunnel creates a million hours of idling a year. The project scope includes replacing the Tunnel with a new 10-lane bridge (eight lanes plus two dedicated transit/high-occupancy vehicle lanes) spanning the Fraser River South Arm, decommissioning the Tunnel, and improving Highway 99 from Bridgeport Road in Richmond.

For its part, Vancouver Fraser Port Authority says through a statement, “We support the replacement because it could allow for new options for using river to support Canada’s trade objectives. In developing its plans, the government consulted with us, particularly as it related to determining a bridge height that would accommodate future trade. The waters below the bridge are within the Port Authority’s navigational jurisdiction, and therefore we need to ensure any structure overhead will not restrict current or future shipping.” The controversy over the bridge project underscores an ongoing divide between Metro Vancouver mayors, who are responsible for approving TransLink, the regional transportation authority, funding for projects such as the Pattullo Bridge, and the province, which continues to plow money into its own infrastructure projects, including the Port Mann Bridge and the new bridge to replace the Massey Tunnel.

New bridge re-ignites the debate over tolling across the region

The George Massey Tunnel, a 629-metre long tunnel was considered an engineering marvel in 1956 when construction began. It was the first project in North America to use immersed tube technology. The tunnel, which was opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1959, no longer meets current seismic guidelines and would need major maintenance in the next ten years if it were to remain open. Estimated to weigh 110,000 tonnes, the old tunnel structure will be removed in a way that protects important salmon populations. Population and employment on both sides of the Fraser River are forecast to continue growing, with demand at the Tunnel increasing by about 20 per cent over the next 30 years. Replacing the tunnel is not what a former transportation minister said would happen to the tunnel ten years ago, instead noting that the existing tunnel would be retained and eventually twinned with a second tunnel. A total of $22 million was spent on seismic improvements in 2004.

By the time the first cars are expected to cross the new 10-lane Massey Bridge in 2022, regional mayors hope they will have some form of road pricing, such as tolls on all roads and bridges or a fee per distance travelled in place across the region. The idea is to make travel more equitable across the region, particularly south of the Fraser, where residents are already subject to a tolled Port Mann Bridge and Golden Ears Bridge, and would also face fees to cross the new Massey Bridge and a proposed upstream replacement of the 79-year old Pattullo Bridge.

In a speech to a local Chamber of Commerce meeting in March, Minister Stone told the audience, “Transportation is absolutely critical to a strong, vibrant diverse and growing economy. In B.C. we are particularly fortunate because we are Canada’s Asian Pacific Gateway. We are Canada’s face to the east. That is why, in partnership with the federal government and with other partners, the province has invested $18 billion in transportation since 2001, which is the largest per capita investment in transportation in Canada.”

In 2015, the B.C. Government announced ‘BC on the Move’, a ten-year transportation plan that outlines critical investments and improvements throughout the province, and aims to rehabilitate roadways and bridges, improve efficiency of ports and airports. The government says the $2.5 billion plan will grow the economy, improve safety, maintain and replace aging infrastructure and support trade for B.C.’s expanding resource sectors through Canada’s Asia-Pacific Gateway. Minister Stone says, “In many ways, the George Massey Tunnel and the vision we have for its replacement, is about improving this vital transportation corridor.”