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The B.C. government will study the feasibility of a fixed link between Vancouver Island and Gabriola Island – but it says a span connecting Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland remains a bridge too far.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone on Thursday announced that the province, in response to a petition signed by hundreds of Gabriola residents, would examine the possibility of replacing the existing ferry service with two bridges.

The decision was heralded by the group behind the petition, though the chief executive officer of BC Ferries said it would prefer to operate as many routes as it can.

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Although the announcement immediately prompted inquiries about a bridge between Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, the ministry said no such link is being considered at this time.

"Gabriola Island residents have petitioned the provincial government to do this study so that any future discussion about a fixed link can be based on current, factual information," Mr. Stone wrote in a statement. "On that basis, and in consideration of our vision that coastal communities are connected in a sustainable manner, we'll assess the feasibility of a fixed link between the two islands."

A petition with more than 600 names was submitted to the ministry in June by the Gabriola Island Bridge Society. The study, which will begin in the fall and be completed by spring, is expected to cost approximately $200,000.

The ministry said it had not previously undertaken any detailed studies on the cost of the bridge access. However, it said previous analysis by BC Ferries – updated to reflect current pricing – indicated the project could run $70-million.

Gabriola Island, a picturesque community of 4,000 full-time residents, is east of Nanaimo. The ferry from Gabriola to Nanaimo covers 3.7 nautical miles and takes 20 minutes.

Michael Zane, a member of the society that submitted the petition, said he believes the majority of residents support the fixed-link idea, even though the petition was signed by only about 15 per cent of them.

Mr. Zane, who has lived on Gabriola for about 14 years, said it's illogical not to have bridge access given the proximity to Vancouver Island. He said the fixed link would make it easier for island residents to get to Nanaimo hospital, and allow young people to continue living on the island while pursuing postsecondary education.

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In an interview, he said concern about a sudden influx of vehicle traffic or loss of island identity is unfounded. "It's a dead-end street, it's not a thoroughfare," he said of the proposed path.

"You only come here because you either want to have a look around, buy supper or buy something that the local craftspeople make. … We'll basically just keep on doing business as usual."

He said the plan would call for a bridge connecting Gabriola to Mudge Island, which would in turn connect on to Vancouver Island. The current ferry service, he said, has become too expensive.

Mike Corrigan, chief executive officer of BC Ferries, said the corporation would prefer to keep as many routes as it can, but would not stand in the way of a decision that made sense for taxpayers.

However, he said the government's contract with BC Ferries would have to be modified. He said BC Ferries would also have to be "made whole" for its stranded asset costs, such as the terminal facility and docks. He added "significant work" was done to the facility just a couple of years ago.

The vessel serving the route would likely be redeployed on another run, he said.

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When asked about the possibility of a bridge between Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, a ministry spokesperson wrote in an e-mail that a number of private-sector studies were carried out in the 1980s that identified potential crossings. However, no comprehensive engineering studies have been done, the spokesperson said.

A government website said such a project would have a number of challenges, given the area's seismic activity, the length of the crossing, the depth of the water. The cost is estimated in the billions of dollars.

Patrick McGeer, a former provincial politician for the Social Credit Party and long-time proponent of a bridge between the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, said it will be built some day. What it will take, Mr. McGeer said in an interview, is a government with some imagination.

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