Transportation Minister Todd Stone is defending the province’s decision to make the replacement of the Massey Tunnel B.C.’s top priority to receive new federal infrastructure grants.
The choice of the new bridge over the Fraser River – expected to cost around $3 billion – isn’t sitting well with some Metro Vancouver mayors, who worry it may effectively compete for federal cash against their rapid transit projects, as well as Metro Vancouver’s top priority of a new sewage treatment plant on the North Shore.
“It is certainly concerning that that bridge project, still somewhat undefined, would be given top billing,” Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie said.
Unlike transit upgrades, Brodie said, there is not broad support behind the bridge, particularly in Richmond, where there are fears it will merely shift the existing bottleneck further up Highway 99.
“We’re concerned about the cost and the business plan for it, the impacts on farmland, how effectively it deals with congestion going northbound and southbound, and how it fits with our overall transportation system and the regional growth plan.”
Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said making the bridge top priority causes her “some consternation” because the mayors’ plan for transit expansion should take precedence.
Stone told Black Press the choice is “in no way intended to suggest the transit projects in Surrey and on Broadway are not critically important.”
He said new federal Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi was already well briefed on both the rapid transit projects, adding he walked him through the case for the George Massey project in detail in a meeting last week.
Ottawa has pledged $60 billion in net new infrastructure grants over 10 years.
Eligible projects are expected to have a strong sustainability element to them and while that might suggest transit upgrades have the inside track, Stone told federal officials the new bridge should also qualify to unclog B.C.’s worst traffic bottleneck.
“There is a very significant sustainability and environmental component to the bridge,” Stone said. “That registered with them.”
He said the project will eliminate a million hours per year of idling vehicles, add HOV lanes and dedicated transit access, as well as pedestrian and cycling options that don’t exist now at the Deas Island crossing.
The new bridge will also ease congestion for the 10,000 people a day who take transit through the tunnel, Stone added.
“It’s for all those reasons it represents the priority.”
He said federal officials are still determining the specific eligibility rules for the new program and he is urging them to also include new ferries, which were not previously eligible for federal infrastructure grants.
BC Ferries has planned $2.5 billion in projects over 12 years, including three new LNG-powered ferries as well as terminal upgrades.
The premier last week indicated she hopes more generous federal cost-sharing for infrastructure could help Metro transit projects proceed without the need to hold another transit tax referendum.
Hepner said she’s “optimistic” both senior governments are prepared to take a new approach.
The province has yet to release a detailed business plan with costing for the Massey bridge – including whether ot not it will be tolled – but Stone promised again that will come this month.
Asked if the province wants a big federal contribution for the bridge to avoid tolling the Highway 99 crossing, Stone said federal support would help offset the cost, regardless of how it is funded.
Canadian Taxpayers Federation spokesman Jordan Bateman said the province has likely demanded the same deal for B.C. drivers as those in suburban Montreal, where the plan was to toll the new Champlain Bridge being built over the Saint Lawrence River until the Liberals made a campaign promise to keep the crossing free.
Bateman noted the federal infrastructure grants are to be back-end loaded in Liberals’ second term – if they’re re-elected – with much less money available over the first four years than B.C. politicians might think.
He said both the Massey and Pattullo bridges should be irrelevant to the infrastructure grant chase if they’re to be built by tolls.