With this week's federal budget silent on any federal contribution to the George Massey Tunnel Replacement Project, the province put on a brave face. Speaking for the government, senior minister Peter Fassbender vowed that he will continue to push the project, and said construction will begin with or without federal money.
Could it be that the federal government, with its love of environmentally sensitive and green infrastructure, isn't sold on the environmental benefits that come with six new lanes of car and truck traffic? Is it perhaps that last December, when the provincial government identified the bridge as the province's top priority for federal infrastructure funding and sent ministers to Ottawa to make the case, those holding the purse strings did not see the "very significant sustainability and environmental component" that was so clear to Transportation Minister Todd Stone? Could it be the increasing calls for a federal environmental review of the project?
Pure speculation, of course, but if Ottawa is hung up on the potential environmental impact of the estimated $3.5-billion project, it's not alone. One need only look as far as the latest collection of public comments published on the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office's website.
Between Jan. 15 and Feb. 16, 447 comments were submitted to the office. Some of them came from environmental organizations, local councils and citizens' groups. Some are cut-and-pasted form letters. But the vast majority were submitted by individuals and they are, to say the least, overwhelmingly opposed to the project.
Chief among the concerns: the cost of the project versus the alternative of refurbishing or replacing the Massey Tunnel, and that the case for a bridge has more to do with moving deep-sea vessels through the Fraser River and pleasing the coal and LNG industries than it does with getting commuters home faster to enjoy a little more time with their families. The submissions indicate more than just a lack of trust.
There is an assumption of dishonesty, and a belief that what the public has been presented with is after-the-fact justification for a project that was a go from the moment it was hatched.
David Jones of Delta wrote of the public consultation process: "This was a sham. It is clear that most of the input that was asked for and received was … not from the public at all, from special interest groups, particularly Port Metro Vancouver and its business allies that dominated the 'small group meetings.'" Mr. Jones also wrote that the project fails to recognize the impact of the further industrialization of the Fraser River delta.
Many others took issue with Mr. Stone's assertion that a new bridge would alleviate a major traffic bottleneck. There is no question that the Massey Tunnel at rush hour is a nightmare. But submission after submission recognized that what the project does is move the bottleneck north to the Oak Street and Knight Street bridges. Those submissions were accompanied by the call for a far more comprehensive plan for regional transportation, one that prioritized transit.
Michael Ages of Vancouver wrote: "Surely an increase in transit service through the tunnel is a much more efficient lever for reducing congestion, and at the same time helping us reduce our contribution toward potentially devastating climate change."
A lot of people talked about transit as a more sensible alternative.
And there was a long list of other concerns: the impact on birds and other wildlife, fish habitat, and the stability of the bridge footings and their ability to withstand a significant earthquake.
There are concerns about the impact on agricultural land and food security.
Of course, the province has a name for people who oppose provincial pet projects for such reasons as potential environmental impact, legitimate cost-benefit concerns or, um, logic. They are "the forces of no" that prevent us from "getting to yes."
But then, what constitutes the forces of no depends on where you stand.
The province refusing to approve any way for the region to raise money for transit improvements without holding another costly (and doomed to fail) referendum?
Or Mr. Stone suggesting that a decision on region-wide tolling can be pushed off by five or six years?
A reasonable person might conclude the forces of no have guided those decisions.
But getting to yes? Well, that appears to be remarkably easy where there's blacktop involved.