Opinion: BC government's economic stimulus must include new infrastructure spending

May 25 2020, 6:06 pm

The grief and uncertainty that COVID-19 has laid upon the world needs no introduction.

This year has quickly devolved into one of loss and despair not witnessed in Canada for decades, but like those before it this storm will eventually clear. However, it may take several years for society to fully recover afterwards, both socially and economically.

This is where government-led stimulus programs can help through providing financial assistance, creating jobs, stimulating economic activity, and building needed infrastructure that will continue to benefit generations to follow.

The federal government has made it clear that they will be allocating billions of dollars in stimulus money for shovel-ready infrastructure projects nationwide. A silver lining to a very dark cloud.

Despite this, BC finance minister Carole James has stated that BC will not be pursuing any additional public transit, highway, or bridge projects with this economic stimulus. Instead, the BC NDP government has decided to focus on short-term support for workers who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

While it is important to have immediate funding in place for such direct short-term help, neglecting stimulus infrastructure programs completely is short sighted and a lost opportunity to secure funding for projects that will benefit the province for decades to come.

Tower construction in downtown Vancouver. (Ian Ius / Daily Hive)

One of the reasons given for this decision is the length of time it takes to get permits and environmental approvals, believing that the recession will be over by the time such stimulus projects commence construction.

There are several flaws to this logic.

First and foremost, it assumes a relatively quick end to the pandemic, a variable that no one can assume with any certainty. It also fails to take into account the potential delayed reduction of construction jobs in the coming year (or years) as the rate of new commercial and residential projects drops, and those currently under construction are completed.

Furthermore, British Columbia is in no position to refuse the opportunity to expand its public transit and road infrastructure, which does not compare favourably to most developed regions of the world.

With this in mind, there are indeed several major projects that the BC government should consider for stimulus funding.

When it comes to “shovel ready,” no project in the nation could fit this term better than the cancelled George Massey Bridge project, which also included roughly 30 km of highway upgrades and a true rapid bus system along the Highway 99 corridor.

If this project had not been stopped in 2017, it would only be two years away from completion today.

Even so, all design work and environmental approvals had been completed, along with roughly $100 million worth of technical studies, utility relocation, preloading, and site preparation for the bridge piers.

Some minor design changes could easily be done before quickly proceeding, such as reducing the lane count on the bridge from the original 10-lane width to eight.

Before its cancellation, the lowest bid for the George Massey Bridge project was $2.6 billion dollars — a bargain compared to the estimated $4 billion to $5 billion for the eight-lane immersed tube tunnel being proposed today, which does not include major upgrades to the aging Highway 99 or a true rapid bus system.

If politics could be put aside, resurrecting the George Massey Bridge project would be a win both in the short term and the long term for the people of BC, and this time with the help of federal funding.

george massey bridge cancelled

Artistic rendering of the Highway 99 improvements, including bus lanes and a Highway 17a interchange rapid bus station, for the cancelled 10-lane George Massey Bridge project. (Government of BC)

Another project that is prime for stimulus funding is the second phase of the Expo Line SkyTrain extension along Fraser Highway.

The entirety of this project is 16 km long with eight new stations, stretching from the current terminus at King George Station in Surrey to 203rd Street in Langley City.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of funding this project has been split into two phases.

The first phase, at a cost of $1.6 billion, includes the first four stations and will terminate at 166th Street in Surrey — 9 km short of its intended goal.

No firm schedule has been decided upon for the second phase.

Advantageously, the business case for both Phase 1 and Phase 2 is being done concurrently. Therefore, if full funding were to become available, both phases could commence construction as a single project in early 2022 without any additional delays. TransLink has indicated that the entire project could be completed by 2025, if funding is made available.

To not pursue this opportunity would be a loss for transit riders throughout the Lower Mainland.

skytrain fraser highway extension map

Route of SkyTrain’s Expo Line Fraser Highway Extension. (City of Surrey)

The second phase of the Millennium Line Broadway Extension project could also benefit from stimulus funding.

Similar to the Expo Line extension in the south of Fraser, the first approved and fully funded phase of the subway terminates well short of its final intended destination of UBC.

While not as accessible as the prior two projects mentioned for moving forward quickly, securing funding for the second phase of this project will likely be a major hurdle in the future, so any chance to do so should be taken.

Full length of Broadway Subway project (TransLink)

Outside of the Lower Mainland, many key highway corridors are dangerously narrow with poor alignments and little grade separation.

Curvy two-lane roads with few passing lanes stand in for what would be limited access four-lane highways elsewhere in North America, Europe, and East Asia.

Highway twinning projects could be expanded and accelerated with a needed injection of stimulus spending. In particular, hundreds of kilometres of the Trans Canada Highway through the interior of BC and on Vancouver Island are in need of twinning and grade separation.

The current pace of slowly improving three or 4 km of highway a year needs to be greatly increased if those alive today wish to see a completed national highway.

A typical section of Highway One between Kamloops and Alberta. Note lack of median barrier, lack of grade separation, Single lane in each direction. (Google Maps)

These suggestions only begin to scratch the surface of the long list of infrastructure projects that should be considered by the provincial government for stimulus spending.

The SFU Gondola, the new St. Paul’s Hospital, improvements to Highway 97 through the Okanagan, grade separation of Highway 17 (South Fraser Perimeter Road), expansion of the West Coast Express, and rail transit between Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley are all needed a decade ago.

While short-term support is an important step towards social and economic recover that should not be discounted, to completely neglect the mid- and long-term recovery benefits of constructing much needed infrastructure will be a loss for all British Columbians.

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