Massey bridge decision followed lobbying by port, documents show

Kent Spencer

The B.C. government decided in September 2013 to remove the George Massey tunnel and replace it with a $3.5-billion toll bridge

METRO VANCOUVER -- Richmond politicians want to know how a tunnel under the Fraser River that was deemed “good for 50 years” is to be filled in and replaced with a 10-lane bridge.

Coun. Harold Steves said council has sent a letter to the provincial government seeking all documentation around its September 2013 decision to remove the George Massey tunnel and replace it with a $3.5-billion toll bridge.

The request comes after Freedom of Information documents showed Port Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Surrey Docks company lobbied hard in favour of scrapping the tunnel, a move that would allow larger ships to ply the south arm of the Fraser River.

“This bridge decision caught us totally unawares,” said Steves. “We had a lot of meetings with (former) Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon in 2006 when he told us the tunnel was good for 50 years.”

Steves said FOI documents show messages from Port Metro Vancouver and Fraser Surrey Docks to government planners in 2012-13, at a time when the bridge-vs.-tunnel debate was taking place in Christy Clark’s government.

A memo from the port in March, 2013 — six months before Clark’s announcement — showed the port’s preferred option and noted officials’ sensitivity to premature disclosure of their choice: “Option No. 2: Replacing the tunnel with a new bridge in the same location. Not publicly confirmed yet, but this is (Port Metro’s) preference.”

A month later, port president Robin Silvester wrote “established terminals upriver of the tunnel (like the Fraser Surrey Docks) are at risk of becoming obsolete.” His letter was addressed to Geoff Freer, provincial director for the tunnel replacement project.

“This project can expand trade opportunities. The single biggest challenge is the tunnel,” Silvester said.

Asked for comment, Freer said the letter “didn’t influence the province’s decision at all,” other than showing that the river was important to the economy.

He said the choice was about the best way to help thousands of commuters stuck in traffic each day.

“It’s about being there and seeing the need to do something,” he said.

But Doug Massey, son of the former Delta MLA for whom the tunnel is named, is skeptical of officialdom’s explanations.

Massey noted that Falcon said 10 years ago that the existing tunnel would be retained and eventually twinned with a second tunnel. A total of $22 million was spent on seismic improvements in 2004.

Freer said the tunnel has “come to the end of its useful life” and “no longer meets today’s highway and seismic standards.”

Massey doesn’t understand how the province’s assessments could be so wildly different in the span of 10 years.

“Didn’t Falcon know what he was talking about? It’s crazy to remove a good, useful crossing,” he said.

Freer said the federal government has been asked to contribute to the bridge’s construction costs, but no amount has been determined.

He said the 110,000-tonne tunnel structure will be removed in a way that protects important salmon populations. Removal costs and who will pay them have not been determined, said Freer.

FOI documents also show dredging specialist Dave Hart and the port’s development strategies manager Jennifer Natland stating new container terminals could be built on port land in Richmond at the foot of No. 7 and No. 8 roads.

Hart said the channel could be deepened from 11.5 metres to as much as 18.5 metres so even bigger ships could be accommodated up to “100 years” in the future.

Asked for comment on the port’s role, Tom Corsie, vice-president of real estate, categorized staff’s missives as making “statements of fact” rather than lobbying.

Corsie said it is easy to overrate the tunnel’s importance, but it is only one of several obstacles in the way of deep-bottomed ships. For example, dredging operations would be required at a cost of more than $100 million.

Other obstacles include underwater pipes for sanitary sewers, water mains, telephone lines and natural gas; and the width of the channel.

Corsie said the decision for the bridge was important for Asian trade, with thousands of jobs and billions of dollars at stake.

The tunnel’s life is to end in 2022 after the bridge is completed.