A battle of plans is brewing between two south of Fraser cities, Richmond and Delta, divided over how to proceed with the replacement of the aging and incapacitated George Massey Tunnel.
During a meeting earlier this week, Richmond City Council voted 8-1 to formally ask the new BC NDP provincial government and Premier John Horgan to suspend the BC Liberals’ plan and any associated pre-construction work to build a new 10-lane replacement bridge at a cost of $3.5 billion.
The project was first proposed in 2013 and also entailed three new major interchanges at Westminster Highway, Steveston Highway, and Highway 17A as well as the widening of Highway 99 from the south end of the Oak Street Bridge in Richmond to Highway 91 in Delta for new HOV/bus lanes.
Pre-construction work to prepare the site for bridge construction began in April after two minor contracts worth $17.3 million were awarded, and this includes the relocation of BC Hydro power lines. No major construction contract has been awarded at this time as this procurement phase was previously scheduled for completion this summer.
“We have felt that the bridge was not the right solution. What it was doing was encouraging further congestion. It’s just a matter of time before we have that further congestion,” said Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie, adding the proposed bridge is a “monstrosity.”
“If we are going to look to the future, we have to look at the single-occupancy vehicles and take them off the road as best as we can. How that is going to happen is to encourage the use of public transportation and move people in fewer cars.”
Brodie also accused the previous BC Liberal government of dismissing the municipality’s concerns and failing to provide City staff with pertinent information.
Richmond City Council’s suggested two alternative options to the provincial government involve retaining and upgrading the existing 1958-built, four-lane tunnel and adding a new adjacent tunnel.
One option would consist of a new additional four-lane tunnel, with two lanes that would be reserved for HOV and buses only and two lanes for general purpose traffic for better connections with the two adjacent interchanges at Steveston Highway and Highway 17A. With this option, the HOV/bus lanes can be designed to be readily convertible to accommodate a future light rail transit link.
The second option calls for an additional two-lane HOV and bus-only tunnel that could also be converted for light rail in the future.
Both of these options, which include a $600-million renovation of the existing tunnel, would not result in any major cost savings compared to the existing bridge plan. The first option will cost an estimated $3.5 billion while the second option is pegged at $3.1 billion.
“For the same amount of money, you get fewer lanes, less solutions, and more pain,” said Councillor Alexa Loo, who was the lone City Councillor to vote against the suggested alternatives and the call to stall bridge work.
Loo added that going back to the drawing board on the project could mean the new and improved crossing will not be complete for another 13 years whereas construction could begin on the new bridge this fall for a completion in 2022.
“This request talks about delaying the building of the bridge. It talks about going into more study, more evaluation, and figuring out a new solution,” she said.
A large digital sign recently erected on Delta’s end of the Massey Tunnel by Delta’s municipal government reads the text ‘NEED BRIDGE NOW.’
Delta Mayor Lois Jackson and her City Council are the only municipal jurisdiction in the region who support the new bridge, arguing that it is needed to relief congestion.
Her City staff project the cost of a tunnel replacement at up to $4.3 billion, but that would not overcome any of the seismic risks associated with a new tunnel. They say that studies have found that the sands underneath the tunnel would liquify in the event of even a minor earthquake, and could lead to the flooding or even collapse of the tunnel.
“Another tunnel is not possible… The fact that people feel that duplicating the existing tunnel would be cheaper than the bridge, when in fact it is not,” Jackson told Daily Hive.
“In an earthquake, it is like a jelly bowl. The tunnel would basically jiggle down so today’s requirements for the tunnel would be dredging it and then putting in sand and gravel and loose stones to reinforce the Earth, and that would have to go right up to the shore. When you have that very firm bottom then you put the tunnel on. Can you imagine the environmental impact of doing that?”
There are also other concerns relating to fire risk, usage by first responders to deal with accidents, and the rate of severe crashes in the tunnel.
Jackson says that her municipal government’s analysis confirms that a new bridge is the best option because it is less costly and environmentally invasive. As well, the bridge has two lanes that could be converted to rail rapid transit in the future.
During the election campaign, Horgan and his party openly criticized the new bridge project. However, during his first days in office, he has said he will review the project instead of deciding to immediately scrap it.
According to the provincial government, approximately 80,000 vehicles and 10,000 transit passengers on buses use the existing tunnel on a daily basis. The crossing is also a main route for trucks and traffic to and from the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal and the US-Canada border.