The green-girdered Haisla Bridge has carried Kitimat’s residents to work for 61 years – a rusting but dependable link in a town that statistics once showed had its best days behind it.
But with Premier Christy Clark’s trillion-dollar LNG dream aimed at the road to fiscal freedom, towns such as Kitimat are preparing to be transformed almost overnight, and the bridge and other decaying infrastructure like it are posing unavoidable obstacles. Municipalities say the government has done nothing yet to address the problem.
The government said in its Throne Speech this month that it would develop a 10-year plan to address transportation needs across the province, though it said it would take a year to identify areas in need.
Municipalities say they know what they need right now: In Kitimat, the traffic across the Haisla Bridge is already getting denser and heavier as the enormous machinery needed for the building boom rolls over the steel mesh of the bridge deck.
“A $10-million or $15-million project could be standing in the way of billions in investment,” said Ron Poole, Kitimat’s chief administrator. “[The bridge] is rusting badly and it’s in need of repairs. Nothing has been fixed. We’ve asked for money for five years and we’ve always been denied.”
Transportation Minister Todd Stone says B.C.’s last decade-long plan was unveiled in 2003. Since then, the province has spent $17-billion on infrastructure, much of it in the Lower Mainland. But with significant returns from the LNG plants around Terrace, Kitimat and Prince Rupert expected, Mr. Stone said his ministry will work with those communities to prepare for the new plan.
The federal government has also pledged $53-billion across Canada for infrastructure. Still, despite significant investments since the mid-2000s, many of Canada’s smaller towns have been overlooked as funds have flowed toward creaking transit and crumbling highways in the country’s major cities.
The Haisla Bridge is the only way for Kitimat residents to drive from the leafy residential side of town to the industrial sector. Five years ago, a report recommended substantial repairs to keep the structure healthy – and that was at a time when the population was shrinking. In the 2006 census, Kitimat led the country in population decline, a downward trend that has accelerated over the past decade.
Now, though, the current population of 8,300 is expected to explode within a decade as Kitimat becomes a global energy hub. The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline would end in Kitimat, and there are plans for three new LNG export terminals, which will need 20,000 construction workers.
Built in 1953, the Haisla Bridge was never meant to carry modern heavy trucks. Mr. Poole called it a “sore thumb” in the plans for local development. He pointed to issues with a recent $3.3-billion smelter upgrade at a Rio Tinto plant across the river. Trucks loaded with material made the twisting, 20-hour mountain drive from Vancouver, but had to be turned around and sent back so the material could be loaded on barges and shipped up the coast.
In nearby Terrace, Mayor Dave Pernarowski has been lobbying for five years for provincial funds to build a second rail overpass in the town of 11,000. A busy rail link cuts through the centre of the city, and an increase in the number of heavy trains from a new container port in Prince Rupert means traffic in the town is frequently stalled by longer trains and more frequent stops at level crossings.
“We’ve been requesting funds for years and trying to find that perfect moment where we can get in and the stars align with the province, the federal government and CN,” said Mr. Pernarowski, who is nearing the end of his second term as mayor. “We’ve been experiencing the same problems as Kitimat. It’s a bit frustrating when you put in a big project like this. Things are picking up and we need to have these projects built now so that we can meet the demand and be ready.”
Terrace isn’t forecasting a large population boom, but the traffic and pipelines carrying gas from the province’s interior to the coast will pass through the city. Only 500 workers are expected, but the region currently has a vacancy rate near 0 per cent, causing rents and house prices to increase dramatically. A number of condo projects and new hotels are under construction.
Farther up Highway 16, Prince Rupert may be the best prepared of the local towns. Once a thriving coastal city of 19,000, Prince Rupert saw its population fall by nearly half since 1996 as fisheries closed and a pulp and paper plant was shuttered. However, over the last decade, a new port and a number of resource projects have seen the population rebound.
With two new LNG terminals planned for the area, along with two pipelines and a major potash export centre, municipal officials have begun to examine whether to build a road connection to the city’s busy airport, which is accessible only by ferry.
Traffic woes are also a concern in Prince Rupert. While most of the containers from the busy port are carried on the trains that later cut through Terrace, an increasing flow of heavy trucks is using Prince Rupert’s major four-lane street.
“In 2007, the container port opened. Up until that point, there were no containers through town. There’s been a huge increase since then. I can hear them now, the containers rattling when the trucks hit a pothole,” said Paul Vendittelli, economic development officer for Prince Rupert.
Rhona Martin, president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities, said she was pleased by the new commitment in the province’s Throne Speech, though she said no one from government has talked to her about it. “It sounds promising,” Ms. Martin said. “I’m sure that every community has their own list drawn up.”
Mr. Stone is aware he must manage those expectations. As the province focuses on keeping its budget balanced, no new money has yet been allotted.
“The balance you need to strike here is to look taxpayers in the eyes and justify the expenditure of every single tax dollar,” Mr. Stone said. “We are committed to balanced budgets for the next three years and beyond that.”
With the Throne Speech commitment but no promises of largesse, officials in northern B.C. will continue lobbying until the final plan is tabled.
“We hope that it means that funding is coming this way,” Mr. Poole said. “If there’s an announcement in a year, that’s too late for the new LNG developments.”