The controversial project spearheaded by the provincial government to build a new 10-lane suspension bridge to replace the four-lane George Massey Tunnel had its groundbreaking ceremony this morning, just weeks before the provincial election.
It is anticipated the project, which was first announced in 2013, will cost $3.5 billion and be funded by tolls on the crossing. There will be five lanes of traffic in each direction, including an HOV/bus lane and the future capability to run rail rapid transit across the bridge by converting lanes.
As well, much of Highway 99 from the south end of the Oak Street Bridge in Richmond to Highway 91 in Delta will be widened for new designated HOV/bus lanes. Three new interchanges along the route will also be constructed at Westminster Highway, Steveston Highway, and Highway 17A.
Construction began today with site preparation work to improve drainage and ground conditions ahead of the major construction phase. A contractor for major construction works will be selected this summer.
“After four years of consultation with First Nations, municipal and regional governments, and a tremendous amount of technical work, construction is underway on the George Massey Tunnel Replacement Project, which includes replacing the seismically vulnerable tunnel with a safe, modern bridge,” said Transportation Minister Todd Stone.
In February, the provincial government granted the project with an environment assessment approval with 33 legally binding conditions, effectively green lighting the government’s ability to commence the construction phase. A separate federal-level environmental review is not required.
Vehicles will be able to cross the new bridge beginning in 2022 when it reaches completion. The 1958-built tunnel, which is submerged on the bed of the Fraser River and protected from ship collisions by a layer of rocks, will subsequently be shut down and dismantled. Proponents say the existing tunnel is seismically unsafe.
According to the Ministry, 80,000 vehicles and 10,000 transit passengers on buses use the existing tunnel on a daily basis.
Construction activity spurred from bridge construction and tunnel deconstruction is expected to create 9,000 direct jobs. Major construction will begin later this year for a completion in 2022.
There were concerns from some groups that the decommissioning of the existing tunnel will lead to larger vessels venturing into the river to access port facilities further upstream, but the provincial government maintains this is not the case.
Others are against the project over worries that it could lead to more suburban sprawl, threaten the agricultural land reserve, and increase the region’s reliance on automobiles.
Over the short-term, the Ministry of Transportation claims the new bridge could reduce travel times by approximately 30 minutes and reduce collisions by as much as 35% due to wider lanes and shoulders. But project planners also contend that its studies show that traffic levels on the nearby Alex Fraser Bridge will rise by 15% from drivers avoiding tolls.
To address concerns over increased traffic levels on the Alex Fraser Bridge, the provincial government announced in January that it is adding a seventh lane of traffic on the crossing using a $70-million counterflow zipper-like barrier system.
As well, there is criticism over the bridge’s potential impact on traffic elsewhere along the Highway 99 corridor, with some opponents suggesting that the four-lane Oak Street Bridge will become the new bottleneck.