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Election issue: Liberals talk tunnel but shy on tolls

Questions hang over promise to pursue new Deas crossing
Traffic inside the Massey Tunnel between Delta and Richmond.

While the proposed replacement of the Massey Tunnel gets prominent play in the B.C. Liberals' election platform, big question marks hang over exactly what will be built, where, and how it will be funded.

Big signs on the approaches to to the tube remind motorists of the planning process quickly launched by Premier Christy Clark last fall, and on Tuesday, Liberal candidates in Richmond waved to drivers at the tunnel.

Transportation Minister Mary Polak said the accelerated replacement of the tunnel would relieve Highway 99 congestion, enhance B.C.'s economy and make the province more competitive in Asia-Pacific trade.

Public consultations to date have focused on whether to build a bridge or new tunnel and possibly shift the alignment.

Absent from the debate so far is any talk about whether tolls will be imposed to pay for what's sure to be a $1-billion-plus project.

Tolling is a sore point for drivers now paying to cross the Port Mann Bridge.

If the Massey Tunnel replacement and badly needed new Pattullo Bridge are both also tolled, drivers wanting a free crossing would have to take the Alex Fraser Bridge.

Critics say that would make a mockery of B.C.'s provincial tolling policy, which requires a reasonable free alternative to any newly tolled route.

Asked recently if the new Massey crossing would be tolled, Clark said that's undetermined and the province is just covering the planning costs so far.

The Liberals have promised a referendum on new transit funding sources, such as a vehicle levy, but haven't said if they'd also allow a vote on adding new tolls to replace bridges or tunnels that are the jurisdiction of the province, not TransLink.

The B.C. NDP has said the Massey Tunnel replacement is not a top priority but they would continue the planning process.

B.C. Conservative leader John Cummins accused the Liberals of concocting the tunnel issue "out of thin air" as an election ploy.

Pressed on how the B.C. Conservatives would pay for a new Deas or Pattullo crossing – both of which could be knocked out of service at any time by river erosion or a quake – Cummins denied it would be through tolls.

"We've got to find money within our current budgets by spending smarter," he said. "I don't think putting tolls on bridges and taxing the average working guy is the way to go."

The bigger fear for farmland advocates is if a new bridge is built further upstream to line up with No. 8 Road in east Richmond.

"It would be very destructive to the farmland in that area," Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie said of the alternate alignment.

The idea is understandably attractive to Port Metro Vancouver, he said.

It owns the Gilmore Farm, which straddles No. 8 Road about where the north footings of a new bridge would go, meaning the port already has an ideally positioned potential industrial site.

Brodie said it "doesn't take a rocket scientist" to see that No. 8 Road lines up neatly with Boundary Road in Vancouver, so a new crossing of the Fraser's south arm on that alignment could add pressure for a north arm crossing too, and perhaps industrialize the whole corridor.

"It would be once again bisecting Richmond," Brodie said.

Transit advocates, meanwhile, see spending on a tunnel replacement mega-project as likely to come at the expense of more money for buses or SkyTrain extensions.

"We still have the paradigm of having roads, tunnels and bridges in one category and transit in another," said SFU City Program director Gordon Price. "With no connection to land use and shaping the growth of the region."

While blacktop politics may play well with voters, Price questions the assumption a bigger, new Deas crossing is needed, noting younger generations are driving less than their parents.

Metro Vancouver planners, in their submission to the tunnel replacement process, argue it should not necessarily be the region's top transportation priority, and if it is built, options like tolls should be considered so extra lanes don't simply refill with traffic.

"The region cannot build itself out of congestion solely through expanding roadways," they said. "Road pricing should be tested, not simply as a revenue source to pay off the construction and operating expenses, but to also manage existing and incremental private vehicle demand."

Metro also raises concerns about higher vehicle emissions, and potential damage to Burns Bog, Deas Island Regional Park and agricultural land.

It says any new crossing should include pedestrian and cycling connections to the planned Experience the Fraser river-front trail network.

A new bridge instead of a tunnel could allow larger container ships to sail up the river to underused Fraser Surrey Docks.

Metro planners recommend the port and province consider whether the proposed new Terminal 2 container port at Deltaport might be redundant if a new bridge unlocks the potential of the existing terminal upriver in Surrey.

via TwitterB.C. Liberal candidates campaigning Tuesday morning in Steveston near the approach to the Massey Tunnel.