Building a new bridge to replace the George Massey Tunnel is estimated to cost $3.5 billion and Transportation Minister Todd Stone says it will be tolled, with motorists paying a similar amount as they do at the Port Mann Bridge.
Transportation ministry officials laid out details of the project, which will include the 10-lane bridge over the Fraser River and improvements to 25 kilometres of Highway 99, including three rebuilt interchanges. Two of the bridge lanes will be HOV/transit lanes.
“Wait times today are unacceptable and they are projected to get worse,” Stone said at a briefing in Richmond.
The project definition report claims commuters will save up to 30 minutes if they pay to cross the new bridge but it also projects 14 per cent of current traffic will divert to the Alex Fraser bridge to avoid tolls.
Officials admit that will mean even heavier congestion at the Alex Fraser Bridge as a result, but Highway 99 motorists will ultimately face the same choice as those at Highway 1 – pay in cash for a quicker crossing or wait at the free one.
Stone said he remains committed to exploring bridge toll reforms if both the new Massey and Pattullo bridges end up being tolled.
“We want to hear from British Columbians on the toll, including any thoughts people have on tolling from a regional perspective,” he said, hinting that it may make sense to toll the Alex Fraser.
“You could perhaps provide a lower toll on more crossings,” he said. “Tell us what you think about that.”
Critics argue the new bridge will simply move a major bottleneck up Highway 99 to the Oak Street Bridge.
But traffic counts show more than 60 per cent of northbound traffic crossing the tunnel is headed to and from Richmond, not on to Vancouver.
And the project rationale also cites projections of dramatic population growth South of the Fraser in the decades ahead.
The combined population of Surrey, Delta, Richmond and White Rock is projected to rise 51 per cent to 1.2 million by 2041, and the number of jobs in the same area are to climb 58 per cent.
The 76-page business case – 18 months overdue but now released – assumes a $750 million initial injection of capital from private partners, to be paid back by government later.
It concludes the project can be paid off with tolls over 35 to 60 years.
Stone said the province is seeking federal contributions for the new bridge – which is its top priority for infrastructure grants – and it’s also asking Port Metro Vancouver to make a contribution because eliminating the tunnel will help open up the Fraser River to more shipping.
A hefty federal grant could be used to reduce the expected toll, Stone said, or shorten the expected repayment period.
The project has not yet got Treasury Board approval on the business case, which would mark the final go/no go decision point for the government. The province intends to solicit bids for the project in the spring.
An environmental review is still required as well as Agricultural Land Commission approval to use some protected farmland.
The province is aiming for a 2017 construction start and 2022 completion date for the Massey Bridge.
The province has so far spent about $30 million on the project.
B.C.’s auditor general is conducting an audit to evaluate the quality of the evidence used to support the decision to replace the tunnel and the Opposition maintains the province has pushed ahead with little justification.
“The real worry here is that the choice of this government is to build one large megaproject rather than deal with all of the transit needs in the region,” said NDP transit critic George Heyman.
“We haven’t seen the promised tolling review. We’re just seeing another bridge with more tolls added.”
He questioned whether a federal contribution to the bridge might come at the cost of more money for improved transit.
Delta South independent MLA Vicki Huntington also said the province should move faster to decide how it would make tolls more fair to all motorists crossing the Fraser.
“It’s putting the people south of the Fraser at a huge disadvantage,” she said. “I hope we start evening out these costs to the public.”
Huntington accused the government of ignoring the fact the tunnel has an estimated 50 years of life remaining under a rehabilitation scenario.
“It needs significant renovation and upgrading, which they did to do the Lions Gate Bridge if you remember,” she said. “But they wanted to ignore that. So they’ve made a deliberate decision to put a new bridge in.”
A phase 1 seismic upgrade was performed on the tunnel about 10 years ago, partially strengthening it, but not to a full modern standard. The estimated risk of the tunnel failing in an earthquake is one in 275 years, compared to one in 2,475 years with a new bridge.
Meanwhile, the Port Mann has not generated the traffic levels and tolls originally expected and traffic counts on Highway 99 have recently been decreasing even before a toll is added.
“There has been a trend to drop a little bit,” project executive director Geoff Freer said of tunnel traffic counts. He said traffic over the Oak Street Bridge has declined about one per cent a year.
Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation said he doubts a 10-lane bridge is needed and is skeptical tolls will fully cover the costs without the government eating much of the debt.
Stone dismissed the objections.
“The naysayers did not build British Columbia and they will not build British Columbia,” Stone said. “Visionaries build British Columbia.”
B.C.’s longest bridge, upgrades along Highway 99
At three kilometres long, the new bridge at the Deas Island crossing will be the longest cable-stayed bridge in B.C. – 65 per cent longer than the Port Mann and 32 per cent longer than the Alex Fraser.
Its 210-metre high towers will be as tall as 60-storey buildings.
The project includes upgrades along 25 kilometres of Highway 99 from the Highway 91 interchange to Bridgeport Road in Richmond, with HOV/transit lanes running the length of the corridor.
It would add a multi-use pathway for cyclists and pedestrians.
New interchanges are planned at Steveston Highway, Westminster Highway and Highway 17A.
The bridge will run over top of the existing alignment and tower over Deas Island Regional Park.
Unlike the Port Mann Bridge, where a buildup of ice once fell and damaged vehicles, the cables will not cross over the roadway, and a similar snow and ice removal system will be installed.
The project also includes removal of the more than 55-year-old tunnel, which does not meet current earthquake standards.
The $3.5 billion cost estimate includes interest and tunnel decommissioning.
The Transportation Investment Corp. would run the bridge and tolls would be collected by TReO, using the same system as for the Port Mann.
The province claims the project will result in fewer idling vehicles and will therefore cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Other promised benefits include improved access across Highway 99 in Richmond, and an improved route off Highway 99 to Bridgeport Station for commuters switching to the Canada Line.
A 35 per cent cut in accidents is projected from wider lanes and shoulders and longer merge lanes.
A third round of public consultation is getting underway. For more info see masseytunnel.ca.