Gateway the 'key to BC prosperity'
But critics want government to release studies of project it claims will relieve traffic congestion
William Boei and Scott Simpson, With Files From Jonathan Fowlie
Published: Wednesday, February 01, 2006
The business community loved the Gateway Program -- the $3-billion highway and bridge-building megaproject unveiled Tuesday by Premier Gordon Campbell -- but critics said the government has not provided enough information to judge whether it will ease gridlock in Greater Vancouver, and for how long.
Campbell released an outline of the plan, called it the key to B.C.'s future prosperity and said it will create thousands of jobs in the region's ports.
But the government did not make public the dozens of supporting studies, on everything from the impact the project will have on traffic congestion to its environmental impacts. Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon said last week that the studies would be released Tuesday.
NDP transportation critic David Chudnovsky challenged the government to release the studies proving that the project would relieve congestion, that it would not work at counter-purposes to the Greater Vancouver Regional District's livable region strategy, and that it would not increase pressure for development on the Lower Mainland's agricultural reserves.
"Very often these projects are built, they cost a fortune, and within a year or three years or five years, the project draws increased traffic," Chudnovsky said.
Gateway Program director Mike Proudfoot said the studies, which may run to thousands of pages, will be posted on the government's website over the next few weeks.
Business reaction was clearly supportive. Campbell drew two standing ovations from delegates to a B.C. Chamber of Commerce conference where he announced the plan, and chamber president John Winters enthusiastically endorsed it.
"Support from the business community is strong," he told Campbell, "and we want these projects to move forward as quickly as possible." Commuters had mixed reactions.
"Absolutely excellent. If you sit on that highway your traffic is
unbearable," said Warren Doerksen, a tradesman who lives in Walnut Grove and works throughout the Lower Mainland.
He said a proposed toll of $2.50 a trip across a twinned Port Mann Bridge would be fair.
But another commuter didn't like the price.
"I like the idea of twinning it. I don't like the idea of paying
$2.50," said Pamela Smith, a welder who lives in Coquitlam and works in Langley. "Five dollars a day to go back and forth -- that's way too high," Smith said. "I don't think you should have to pay. We pay taxes already."
Campbell described the Gateway Program as a keystone in his
government's plan to turn British Columbia into the funnel through which Asian goods pour into North America.
Even if B.C. does nothing, container traffic will more than double in the next 15 years, he said. If B.C. wants to increase its share of trade -- and Campbell said his government aims to quadruple it -- "we're going to have to invest more."
"We believe that we can reach for a whole new set of opportunities in this province, which will bring thousands and thousands of new jobs," he said. Port-related jobs can be increased from 26,000 today "to 71,000 direct jobs," Campbell said.
He also promised the plan will ease congestion on the Port Mann Bridge, "the largest traffic choke point in our province."
"If we don't take action now, we're going to see a significant, a
substantial decrease and deterioration, not just in moving goods, but in the quality of our lives," the premier said.
Chudnovsky also questioned the cost of the plan, which Falcon said will not exceed $3 billion despite strong cost inflation in the construction industry.
"Construction costs in the next five years are going to increase 55 per cent," said Chudnovsky, citing research by a construction industry group. "I think we know already that the cost of this project is going to be at least $1.5 billion more than the premier is telling us, and that should be of concern to the people of the province," he said. "How is it going to be paid for?"
Vancouver councillor and former TransLink director David Cadman also predicted the project will go well over budget.
But Falcon disagreed.
He said construction will be staggered from 2009 through 2013, after B.C.'s big building binge -- Olympic venues, the Sea to Sky Highway, the new convention centre and two new rapid transit lines, among others -- has wound down.
Each component of the Gateway Program already has built-in
contingencies that have built-in inflation cushions, Falcon said.
The program consists of:
- Twinning the Port Mann Bridge and expanding the Trans-Canada Highway from Langley to Vancouver at a cost of $1.5 billion.
- A new South Fraser Perimeter Road intended to route truck traffic from the ports to the Trans-Canada Highway for $800 million.
- Linking existing roads from New Westminster to Maple Ridge to form a North Fraser Perimeter Road for $400 million, including a new bridge over the Pitt River.
Falcon said that leaves $300 million in an overall contingency fund. He added that much of the project consists of road-building, while the inflation pressure is mainly on concrete-and-steel structures.
"We believe it's doable," Falcon said of the $3-billion budget.
The province has not detailed how it plans to pay for the program, but Campbell indicated it will ask for federal help, since the South Fraser road will connect federal port facilities.
Falcon said some or all parts of the project could be built as P3s -- public-private partnerships -- but that had not been decided yet.
"P3s don't work for every project," he said, "but we look at them for every project."
As much as half the project cost -- $1.5 billion -- could be raised through tolls on the twinned Port Mann Bridge, Falcon said.
None of the elements of the project are final yet. It now goes into 18 months of public consultations followed by more detailed design studies and environment assessment.
But Falcon strongly suggested the Port Mann will be electronically tolled, probably at about $2.50 per vehicle per trip. Regular bridge users will have transponders on their vehicles that automatically
record the charges. Others will have their licence plates photographed and will be sent bills.
Falcon said tolling will not only bring in money to pay for the bridge, it will be used as a traffic demand management tool -- to reduce congestion by discouraging some people from using the bridge.
Academics and environmentalists say -- and Falcon has agreed in the past -- that you can't build your way out of congestion. But, he suggested Tuesday, you can keep it at arm's length for a time.
"If you don't put electronic tolling in place, you get the benefits [of new capacity] for about five to 10 years," he said. "With the
introduction of electronic tolling, you extend those benefits for 25 years and beyond." Falcon said it will be up to future governments to decide whether the tolls should stay in place past 2031.
But he said he is certain commuters will happily pay $5 a day for clear sailing across the bridge in return for an extra hour a day with their families. Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts agreed.
"Nobody likes tolling," Watts said. "However, if I have a choice
between spending an hour in a lineup with my engine running and paying $2.50, I will pay the $2.50."
B.C. Trucking Association president Paul Landry said his members were "absolutely delighted" about the plan, which is expected to provide some relief from the hundreds of millions of dollars that truckers annually waste sitting in traffic.
"The premier is providing the vision for the transportation of people and goods across the province for a way we haven't seen in decades," Landry said. "The projects that the premier has announced today offer relief from congestion that is choking our industry in the Lower Mainland and quite frankly creating problems elsewhere in the province."
Cadman said the province hadn't considered enough alternatives, such as encouraging the truck and port industries to work at night when roads are clear.
FIRST ROUND OF OPEN HOUSES BEGIN IN LANGLEY:
The provincial government starts public consultations on its Gateway Program (including the twinning of the Port Mann Bridge) this month that will go on for up to 18 months. It will move into more detailed design phases in 2007 and 2008, and construction should begin in 2009. Here are the times and locations of the first round of open houses to get the public involved in the process:
- Saturday Feb. 18, Langley, Walnut Grove Community Centre, 8889 Walnut Grove Dr., 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
- New Westminster, Saturday Feb. 25, Centennial Community Centre, 65 East Sixth Ave., 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
- Burnaby, Saturday March 4, Eight Rinks, 6501 Sprott St., 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
- Burnaby, Wednesday March 8, Bonsor Recreation Centre, 6550 Bonsor Ave., 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
- Vancouver, Saturday March 25, Hastings Community Centre Auditorium, 3096 East Hastings St., 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
- Vancouver, Wednesday March 29, Roundhouse Community Centre, Great Hall, 181 Roundhouse Mews, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
- Surrey, Saturday April 8, Guildford Recreation Centre, 15105 105th Ave., 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
- Surrey, Tuesday April 11, North Surrey Arena, 10275 135th St., 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
- Coquitlam, Saturday April 22, Coquitlam Library, Poirier Branch, 575 Poirier St., 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
- Coquitlam, Tuesday April 25, Planet Ice, 2300 Rocket Way, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
- Abbotsford, Saturday April 29, Abbotsford Recreation Centre, 34690 Old Yale Rd., 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.