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British Columbia Premier Christy Clark speaks to a business audience in June 2012.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Consultations on replacing the 53-year-old Massey Tunnel under the Fraser River could be pointless because the B.C. Liberal government has been vague about how it would pay for such an expensive project, the NDP transportation critic says.

Harry Bains said on Wednesday the Liberal government was talking about being in a tough financial situation at the same time as it said it would hold discussions about spending on a replacement for the 629-metre tunnel. The link is thought to have about 10 to 15 useful years left before major components will have to be replaced.

"I question their intent," Mr. Bains said. "It was basically a statement of intent with no real dollars or planning. It seems more electioneering to get popular before the election."

In September, Premier Christy Clark told delegates at the annual meeting of the Union of B.C. Municipalities that it was time to replace the tunnel between Richmond and Delta, which opened in 1959.

"Over 80,000 people move through that tunnel every day, and it is a huge cause of traffic congestion," she said. "It drives people crazy and it drives business out of our province. So starting today, we are going to sit down with communities, with mayors and begin planning the replacement, long overdue, of the George Massey Tunnel."

The existing tunnel can face morning rush-hour lines of 1.5 to five kilometres.

Ms. Clark said replacing it would be a 10-year effort, and that haste was required because the populations it serves are expected to grow by 300,000 people over the next two decades. The project would face a year of environmental assessment, two years of procurement and up to five years construction, according to the Transportation Ministry.

That consultation process began on Wednesday. It is to run through to Dec. 19 in various forms, including five public open houses in Delta, Richmond and Surrey. The aim of the process is to develop a short list of options that will be the subject of further consultation in 2013.

Some of the ideas the province has floated include a new bridge or renovating and expanding the tunnel.

Richmond Mayor Malcom Brodie said his community is participating in the process, but he was wary, in an interview on Wednesday, about its prospects.

"How serious are they? It's hard to say, but we will take [government] at their word," he said.

In some respects, he said his views on the project have not changed since he listened to Ms. Clark deliver her speech in Victoria.

"I thought then as I think now that without a funding commitment, it's hard to know whether this will become an actual project," he said.

Mr. Brodie said if the provincial government wants to reduce congestion, it should pay to put more buses on the road. "That would be a quicker and more effective fix than going through the planning process to replace the tunnel over the next 10 years," he said.

Also, he suggested the government needs to take a broader look at transportation, considering upgrades from south of the tunnel to the Oak Street bridge – a frequently congested stretch of road.

Mr. Brodie said the election next year will be a kind of reckoning on the issue. "If there is a change of government, we want to reconfirm their commitment to continuing this project," he said.

The Queen opened the tunnel. It was the first in North America to be built with immersed-tube technology, in which six concrete segments were built in a dry dock, connected, sealed and sunk into position. The tunnel was named for a local politician, George Massey, who advocated for a tunnel to replace ferry service that existed at the time.