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This a conceptual rendering of what the George Massey tunnel replacement bridge over the Fraser River on Highway 99 might look like.

One of British Columbia's most senior federal cabinet ministers says Ottawa won't be taking sides in a standoff between Vancouver region mayors and the provincial government over a planned $3.5-billion bridge across the Fraser River.

Premier Christy Clark is touting the 10-lane bridge between Richmond and Delta, but area mayors have collectively declared their opposition to the three-kilometre-long project, saying planning has been insufficient for the megaproject.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, a Vancouver MP, said on Monday he's leaving it to the mayors and province to figure out what's next for the bridge, which would replace the 57-year-old George Massey Tunnel.

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But while the mayors have collectively declared their opposition to the project, saying planning has been insufficient, one acknowledges that the B.C. government can do what it likes, no matter how stiff the opposition.

When asked about the disagreement, Mr. Sajjan said Ottawa will wait for provinces and municipalities to agree on projects, such as this, that might warrant federal financial support.

"The provinces and municipalities will resolve their differences in their way, but we're not going to be picking and choosing those various projects," he said in an interview. "We're going to be providing the supporting function when it comes to our infrastructure dollars that we're going to be investing all across the country."

Mr. Sajjan's comments come after the mayors of Metro Vancouver last week formally said they were united in opposition against the proposed bridge, issuing a report that lists a number of objections to the project.

"History has demonstrated the world over, you can't reduce congestion by simply building more roads. This project represents an expansion of car-oriented infrastructure and diverts crucial funds from transportation projects that support the regional growth strategy," Greg Moore, chair of Metro Vancouver, said in a statement.

Mayors object to various issues concerning the bridge, including "insufficient consideration" of alternatives such as a new tunnel, a failure to integrate the project into the regional growth strategy and transportation network, downloading road-improvement costs onto municipalities, and a lack of transparency and consultation on the design and business case.

Ottawa's sideline approach left one regional mayor deeply disappointed, even as he said he was mindful of the federal government's caution.

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"I can totally understand where the feds are coming from. They don't want to get into the middle of this and pick sides," said North Vancouver Mayor Darrell Mussatto, who chairs the utilities committee for Metro Vancouver. "I think they're hoping that we can resolve the issues ourselves."

Mr. Mussatto noted that Metro Vancouver has asked the federal Environment Minister to order an environmental assessment review. But he said the mayors are "in a very, very weak position," with no means to head off the provincial Liberal government.

"We have very few tools to do anything other than make it known that this is heading in the wrong direction and we really want to collaborate with [the province]," he said. "It points to the vulnerability of municipal governments. We're very vulnerable to any decision the provincial government makes."

The B.C. government has said the Massey Tunnel is nearing the end of its life unless there are renovations to lighting, ventilation and other systems. They province also notes that the tunnel would suffer serious damage in a major earthquake, cutting off a major transportation corridor.

"A bridge will remove what is currently the worst traffic bottleneck in B.C. and eliminate over one million hours of vehicle idling each year – improving air quality in the region and cutting down on the greenhouse emissions churned out by idling cars," said a statement issued last week from Transportation Minister Todd Stone.

Mr. Stone said the province has held three rounds of detailed consultation over the last four years on the project, which would take five years to build.

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