Opinion: BC's big mistake with cancelling the original 10-lane Massey Bridge project

Nov 6 2019, 2:57 pm

The replacement of the chronically congested George Massey Tunnel has been a long and turbulent road.

Construction of the previously proposed 10-lane bridge and Highway 99 upgrade would have been nearing half completion at this point, with the new interchanges, bus stations, and the bridge itself taking shape. The long-awaited relief for commuters, transit riders, the movement of goods, and even cyclists wishing to cross the South Arm of the Fraser River would have been in clear sight.

Instead, we have spent the last two years back at the drawing board rehashing options that had already been analyzed, while the work already completed for the project has sat vacant and seemingly forgotten.

Now, this past week, the Metro Vancouver Board of Directors voted in favour of moving forward with a new eight-lane immersed-tube tunnel replacement. In many respects, after another two years of delay, we have come full circle, though many questions and concerns still remain unanswered.

george massey bridge

Artistic rendering of the cancelled 10-lane bridge to replace the George Massey Tunnel. (Government of BC)

The four-lane Massey Tunnel first opened to traffic on May 23, 1959. The current counter-flow system was introduced in 1981, which reduces Highway 99 to a single lane in the reverse direction.

Having been constructed in the 1950s, little consideration was given towards seismic risks — making it vulnerable to collapse in the event of even a moderately powerful earthquake — and it has become generally inadequate for modern highway safety standards. There is a strict height limit in place at 4.15 metres, no dangerous goods are allowed to travel through the tunnel, and there is no access for cyclists and pedestrians.

The Deas Island Tunnel (George Massey Tunnel) after opening, 1959. (files)

It became clear that the aging and narrow Massey Tunnel was in need of a major overhaul or complete replacement.

The first major examination into expanding the crossing occurred in 2006. Several years later between 2012 and 2015, a more serious campaign took place that examined numerous options.

These included the retention and upgrade of the existing tunnel with the addition of new parallel structures, the use of entirely new corridors, and the full replacement of the original tunnel via new tunnels or bridge.

All options that included retaining the existing tunnel were decided against due to such factors as the age of the structure (60 years as of May 2019), its limitations for traffic use, and the high cost required to make it adequately seismically safe.

Finally, a champion emerged — a new 10-lane bridge that was to begin construction in late 2017.

Artistic rendering of the cancelled 10-lane bridge to replace the George Massey Tunnel. (Government of BC)

At a cost of $3.5 billion, this project was far more than just a new river crossing.

It included the upgrade and modernization of 24 kms of Highway 99 from the southern end of the Oak Street Bridge to the border of Surrey, as well as the complete rebuild of three major interchanges, and a robust transit system.

Full scope of cancelled George Massey Bridge project. (BC Ministry of Transportation & Infrastructure)

Then, in 2017, with $70 million of pre-construction already completed, the entire project  came to a screeching halt.

Yet another analysis of the crossing was spearheaded by the new coalition government formed by the BC NDP and BC Greens. The results of which suggested such severe value engineering tactics as retaining the existing antiquated interchanges and removing the bulk of the transit component.

A total of 18 bridge and tunnel options emerged, and the final decision was given to the mayors of Metro Vancouver. This lengthy list was then narrowed to six options:

  1. New eight-lane immersed-tube tunnel with multi-use pathway
  2. New eight-lane bridge with multi-use pathway
  3. New eight-lane deep-bored tunnel plus use of the existing tunnel for a multi-use pathway
  4. New six-lane immersed-tube tunnel plus use of the existing tunnel to provide two dedicated lanes for transit
  5. New six-lane bridge plus use of the existing tunnel to provide two dedicated lanes for transit
  6. New six-lane deep-bored tunnel plus use of the existing tunnel to provide two dedicated lanes for transit

The three leading options were all eight-lane structures that would fully replace the existing tunnel.

In October of this year, the big announcement was made that the immersed-tube tunnel option was chosen over the deep-bored tunnel and bridge options.

While the right decision was made in not retaining the existing structure, there are many peculiarities in the selection of the eight-lane immersed-tube tunnel over the eight-lane bridge.

George Massey Tunnel

Current preliminary conceptual artistic rendering of an immersed-tube tunnel replacement for the George Massey Tunnel, October 2019. Note lack of proper median HOV/bus lanes. (Government of BC)

Both the bridge and selected immersed tube are stated to be similar in cost, but the bridge has numerous advantages.

First and foremost, the region has far more local expertise in constructing bridges than tunnels, especially for roadways. A bridge would be faster to complete and has a lower construction risk, and a great amount of geotechnical work and site preparation has already been done on site for the previous bridge project.

Constructing the immersed-tube tunnel will also involve substantial in-river disturbance, while a bridge would not.

Furthermore, there is the cyclist and pedestrian experience to consider. The immersed-tube tunnel option currently suggests that pedestrians and cyclists will have a separate enclosed pathway divided from vehicle traffic. For many people, such an environment has a higher level of perceived danger, making it uninviting, than an open-air sidewalk along a bridge, especially when considering the length of the enclosure and the relatively remote location.

George Massey Tunnel

Current preliminary conceptual cross-section of an immersed-tube tunnel replacement for the George Massey Tunnel, October 2019. Note pedestrian and cyclist pathways and shoulder bus lanes. (Government of BC)

Beyond the crossing itself is the nebulous nature of the remaining aspects of this project.

Will it include a significant upgrade to the archaic Highway 99 corridor, akin to the now-cancelled 10-lane bridge proposal, or will this new project be confined to just the vicinity of the river crossing itself?

Unfortunately, the information available as of now is worrying in this regard. In the original project, both the Steveston and 17A interchanges were going to be completely rebuilt and modernized.

Cancelled upgraded Highway 99/17A Interchange Note the reduced footprint and rapid bus station. (BC Ministry of Transportation & Infrastructure)

Cancelled upgraded Highway 99/Steveston Interchange. Note the removal of the clover leaf and rapid bus station in the centre of the interchange. (BC Ministry of Transportation & Infrastructure)

The Steveston interchange was to become completely free flowing, and ramps were going to be utilized along the project’s length, retiring several cloverleafs.

The use of such ramps is far more space efficient and would have actually resulted in a net gain of farmland. The current renderings available suggest that these dated interchanges will remain largely unchanged with the opening of the new tunnel.

Current preliminary design Highway 99/Steveston Interchange and north approach, George Massey Tunnel replacement. (BC Ministry of Transportation & Infrastructure)

This is especially concerning with regards to the transit component of the project.

The now-cancelled rendition of the Massey Tunnel replacement included rapid transit in the form of a rapid bus system running through the entire 24-km length of the project. This consisted of centre HOV/bus lanes akin to the Highway 1 and Port Mann Bridge upgrade, a dedicated transit ramp system connecting the bus exchange at the Canada Line’s Bridgeport Station to Highway 99, and in situ rapid bus stations located within the Steveston and 17A interchanges.

These are all standard components for creating a true rapid bus system, and they all require a substantial rebuilding of Highway 99 and related interchanges.

Anything less will be a reduction in the project’s scope for public transit.

Current renderings of the new tunnel concerningly depict bus transit on the shoulder lanes, suggesting the removal of a true rapid bus system from the project.

Cancelled direct bus link between Bridgeport Station and Highway 99. (BC Ministry of Transportation & Infrastructure)

In contrast to what has been depicted so far, the City of Surrey has formally requested that the scope of the project be extended further south from the original 2017 concept, further adding to the confusion. This request includes upgrading such interchanges as King George Boulevard and 152nd Street.

Highway 99/King George Boulevard Interchange of Highway 99. (Google Maps)

At this point, it seems that the provincial government may end up spending more for less by the time any replacement for the Massey Tunnel is completed.

Millions of dollars will have been wasted on engineering and pre-construction for the original cancelled bridge replacement, costs will have risen due to inflation from years of unnecessary delays, $40 million will have been squandered for basic upgrades on the existing tunnel (to be completed in 2020), and the cost of lost economic activity will continue to rise until at least 2028 — the current estimate for the earliest possible opening date. That is if all goes smoothly during the technically challenging construction of the immersed-tube tunnel.

In retrospect, the wisest of decisions would have been to continue with the bridge project already in motion in 2017, just with a reduced lane count of eight lanes from the original 10 lanes.

Instead, this project has flipped, flopped, churned, and twisted itself into one big pretzel. The worst though may be yet to come if the public transit and highway corridor components of this project are severely reduced in scale and value engineered.

George Massey Tunnel

Highly preliminary conceptual artistic rendering of an eight-lane bridge replacement for the George Massey Tunnel, October 2019. (Government of BC)