Opinion: Horgan must follow Barrett’s example on Massey Bridge

Eric Doherty

When Dave Barrett led the NDP to victory and became premier in September 1972, Vancouver was in the midst of a freeway revolt. East Vancouver and Chinatown residents had united against the planned downtown freeway and third crossing to the North Shore. Today, NDP Premier John Horgan faces a similar controversy over the proposal to replace the Massey Tunnel with a 10-lane bridge.

Barrett could have gone for half-measures and tried to sell a more modest freeway into the downtown, combined with modest transit improvements. And the incentive to build for cars was strong; back then climate change wasn’t on anyone’s political radar and many people thought that a new strip of asphalt was the surest sign of human progress.

He and his cabinet heard the shouts that ‘something has to be done’ for commuters crossing from the North Shore to Vancouver. So they created the SeaBus, still one of the best-loved parts of Greater Vancouver’s transit system. Freeways never flattened Chinatown or cut off the West End from the waterfront, and only a few think a third road crossing to the North Shore should be a priority. And Barrett’s SeaBus was very inexpensive compared with a freeway bridge or tunnel.

Barrett, and his allies, won in downtown Vancouver. But he also boldly decided to build a region-wide network of rapid-transit lines, instead of building and expanding suburban freeways. To keep costs down and allow a rapid build-out, these light-rail lines would use the old interurban railway right-of-ways and would mostly be at ground level. His vision even extended to considering a single-track light-rail tunnel beside the Massey Tunnel to serve South Delta and Tsawwassen.

He didn’t win re-election, so his ambitious rapid-transit plans were largely forgotten as freeway building became the default response to congestion outside of the downtown core. Even the NDP governments of the 1990s took only half-measures to prioritize transit.

In the ’70s, Barrett’s transit over freeways position was radical. Today, it’s mainstream. Only one mayor supports defeated premier Christy Clark’s multibillion-dollar plan to build a 10-lane freeway bridge to replace the Massey Tunnel. Horgan sides with the other 20 Metro Vancouver mayors who oppose the Massey Bridge, and favour funding the rapid-transit lines in the regional transportation plan instead.

A key lesson Horgan should learn from Barrett is that cost-effective transit improvements can successfully replace freeway proposals like the third crossing and the Massey Bridge. There is nothing very fancy or expensive about the SeaBus. The name says it all, a bus that runs on water.

Interestingly, the B.C. Liberals once proposed to replace their Massey Tunnel freeway expansion plan with bus lanes and rapid bus. In 2009, then-Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon told the Richmond Review that the bus lanes and tunnel upgrades would be sufficient “for easily another 50 years.” The B.C. Liberals built some of the bus lanes, but cut back on bus service through the tunnel instead of providing the frequent, rapid-bus service they promised.

The first step for the B.C. NDP should be to help TransLink and the mayors provide what the B.C. Liberals promised, a major increase in bus service through the Massey Tunnel. Completing the bus lanes to the Canada Line in Richmond is also essential to provide a desirable alternative to the Massey Bridge proposal. Rail transit to Ladner and Tsawwassen, and to the North Shore, may be worthwhile next steps — but buses and SeaBuses work.

The much bigger step Horgan needs to take is to reorient transportation priorities across B.C. to reduce the climate pollution that is fuelling ever more destructive wildfires and floods. The B.C. NDP promises to slash greenhouse gas pollution from transportation by 30 per cent in only 13 years, and the federal-provincial Climate Framework commits B.C. to shift infrastructure spending from road expansion to transit to fulfil Canada’s Paris climate commitments.

To hold the Green-NDP alliance together, the NDP must move decisively on these commitments. And that means urban highway expansion must be the last resort, not the default option.

Eric Doherty is a Victoria-based transportation planning consultant and a member of the Council of Canadians Victoria chapter.