Eight Issues Surrounding the Planned Richmond-Delta Bridge

A conceptual design of the  new bridge that will replace the George Massey Tunnel. Construction is slated to begin in 2017.

A conceptual design of the new bridge that will replace the George Massey Tunnel. Construction is slated to begin in 2017.

On Sep.20 B.C. Premier Christy Clark announced the provincial government had decided to replace the George Massey Tunnel with a 10-lane bridge to connect Delta and Richmond via Highway 99. The 4-lane tunnel opened in 1959 and currently has about 80,000 vehicles pass through it daily. The tunnel is often plagued by traffic jams requiring counterflow lane measures.

Five scenarios were laid out by the government to solve traffic congestion at the crossing. The results of a public consultation can be read here. Ultimately it decided on a bridge over a new tunnel or twinning the existing one.

Now that the province has decided to build a bridge there are many questions and issues surrounding the decision and the subsequent construction of the bridge. Many of the larger issues tie back to port expansion.

#1 Farmland destruction

Despite objections from Metro Vancouver, Port Metro Vancouver has already bought farm land in the Agricultural Land Reserve in South Richmond, calling it a “strategic asset.” ALR land in Delta is also being speculated on. A bridge will further facilitate port expansion on the Fraser River and it will theoretically open up Ladner and Delta to more development leading to predictions of agricultural destruction.

#2 Supertankers

A hot topic in Richmond is a proposed jet fuel offloading facility in southeast Richmond that could see supertankers go up and down the Fraser River to deliver the fuel. It’s believed by some that the bridge is part of an overarching plan to expand Port Metro Vancouver operations on the river, including said supertankers, which would otherwise be hampered by a tunnel sitting on the bottom of the river. Some say the facility poses inevitable fatal risks to the Fraser River estuary. Meanwhile the airlines consortium needs fuel delivered.

According to consultations with the public there was repeated concerns/questions “about the importance of river traffic, how this is factored into the evaluation criteria and what role Port Metro Vancouver plays in the decision-making process.”

So, to what extent does the port authority have a say in the decision to build a bridge as opposed to a tunnel? And does its opinion trump that of the communities’?

The consultation report says a bridge is a better option than a new adjacent tunnel for reasons such as safety (first-responders and pedestrian/cycling concerns) and cost. It’s unclear if the province did a side-by-side study of costs between a new bridge and tunnel. Did it? We do know the government appeared to be looking at a new tunnel in 2006. So what changed? One could point at the jet fuel facility application and the booming needs of the port in the past decade.

So, are the cost and safety concerns of a new tunnel valid or is the real reason for a bridge to remove the tunnel to make supertanker traffic viable?

#3 Rapid Transit

The bridge renderings only go so far as to show HOV lanes and pedestrian/cycling paths. Does that mean the idea of extending the Canada Line to Delta and BC Ferries is all but out the window in the foreseeable future?

It seems a 10-lane mega bridge does nothing but promote the use of cars (which one can suppose isn’t a bad thing if cars can run emission free in the future) but the bridge could also be engineered to facilitate rail tracks in the future. Will it be?

Richmond councillor Harold Steeves said the province should first try to introduce rapid transit and upgrade the tunnel instead of destroying it all together. Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie said he supports the bridge but also says rapid transit options still need to be prioritized at the crossing.

Meanwhile, others will ask if this bridge is really needed in light of other regional transit needs.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has been outspoken about prioritizing transit in Vancouver and to a lesser extent Surrey. He wants provincial funding for a Broadway-UBC subway or LRT line.

Metro Vancouver chair Greg Moore told The Sun that the Massey Tunnel is lower on its priority list than rapid transit in Surrey and Vancouver’s Broadway corridor.

Notably, given the needs at the Pattullo Bridge, Surrey Mayor Diane Watts told CBC Radio she supports the bridge but stayed mum on what transit priorities lie where.

#4 Traffic congestion

According to a BCAA poll in June, drivers ranked the Massey Tunnel the third worse road in B.C. Geoff Freer is the executive director of the tunnel-replacement project and said congestion is the main concern, including improving interchanges north and south of the crossing.

“We’ll be looking at every interchange and updating the traffic numbers north and south of the tunnel,” Freer told The Province. But this too, has a lot to do with facilitating the port’s expansion (making the (proposed) Blundell interchange a trucking route). Some transit critics like SFU’s Gordon Price say the tunnel isn’t that bad and, in fact, usage has lowered in past years.

Brodie makes a point that unless rapid transit options are improved the Oak Street Bridge will only continue to get congested and the new bridge will essentially just postpone the inevitable traffic jam.

So, how will this bridge affect the connecting road/highway network? Will the Oak Street Bridge be widened or replaced soon?

Freer notes that many commuters don’t travel to/from Vancouver. And it is notable that Richmond’s population will grow by 80,000 by 2041 according to the city’s estimates. So it would be safe to say the bridge’s traffic flow also hinges on improved interchanges.

#5 Costs

There are no financial estimates for the bridge as of Clark’s announcement but given the renderings show five lanes each way like the Port Mann Bridge, it will likely cost north of $3 billion including the other highway upgrades.

It stands to argue that if the Massey Tunnel can last another 15 years with some seismic upgrades, what is the rush to build a bridge, especially in light of community concerns regarding port expansion?

Of course, with inevitable port expansion, the bridge (or any road expansion for that matter) will undoubtedly expedite efficiency and thus the economy.

It costs $4.25 to cross the Golden Ears Bridge and $3 to cross the Port Mann Bridge. At 20 work days a month, 12 months a year that’s an extra $1,440 out of pocket for a worker commuting over the Fraser River. And that’s with no guarantee of saved time if the bottleneck moves to the Oak Street Bridge.

Metro mayors bandy about ideas on how to raise money for transit (failed attempts at carbon tax and road pricing) and bridge tolls on the new bridge will be a near certainty according to Delta Mayor Lois Jackson, who also thinks tolls should be around $1 each way on all Fraser crossings, not just the newly built ones (to spread the love, so to speak).

(Back in the 1960s the George Massey Tunnel cost a whopping $1 to pass through by the time tolls were decommissioned)

#6 Politics

NDP transportation critic George Heyman told The Province the bridge is being used as a political ploy as it is slated to begin construction the same year as the next provincial election.

Inevitably a multi-billion dollar project will have its fair share of disagreements. The BC Liberals are likely to tout this project as one that creates and facilitates jobs. Opponents may well say the funds are ill-allocated.

#7 Aesthetics

OK, so I will personally interject here. This is a massive bridge at the foot of residential communities used to some of the most beautiful riverside vistas. When wind farms are opposed based on their appearance I wonder how this concern wasn’t noted in the consultation process. It will also produce a lot more noise than a tunnel.

#8 Name

Furthermore, can we call it the George Massey Bridge? It could save the memory of the former politician. Or perhaps we can sell its naming rights?