Richmond Councillor Harold Steves is playing a game of cat and mouse with the provincial government. The onetime MLA is skirting the province's cumbersome freedom-of-information process by asking directly for information about why the B.C. government is forging ahead with the George Massey tunnel replacement.
His request will test the resolve of Finance Minister Mike de Jong, who has decided to take up the challenge of ending the games that his government has long played with access to information. The practice of triple-deleting government e-mails, combined with the oral culture that seeks to avoid documentation, has resulted in a process that is designed to thwart public disclosure.
Mr. de Jong, who himself does not "do" e-mail, has vowed to lead reforms that will see cabinet minister travel expenses revealed in exquisite detail – right down to the receipts – starting this summer, and aims to force all agencies of government to post contract details without hiding behind a privacy curtain.
"It's rooted in that basic principle that if we are spending the public's money, the public has a presumptive right, in my view, to know what we are spending it on, and on what basis," Mr. de Jong said in an interview. He acknowledges there will be some resistance in some parts of the government, where the duty to assist with public inquiries been dispensed through the narrowest channel. "That's the shift. It shouldn't be a cat-and-mouse game."
There is no shortage of information publicly available about the Massey Tunnel replacement project – 3,400 pages of documents are posted online. But Mr. Steves, along with a large contingent of irritated Metro Vancouver mayors, remains perplexed about how this $3.5-billion project became the province's No. 1 transit priority.
The province says the Massey Tunnel is the worst traffic bottleneck in B.C., producing one million hours of vehicle idling each year.
Furthermore, the government now says the tunnel is nearing the end of its life and would not withstand a significant earthquake. The bridge will be safer and reduce travel time for commuters.
But there was no groundswell of public demand for a tolled replacement, nor did the local governments who spent years negotiating a list of transit priorities see this as an urgent need.
The Mayors' Council on Regional Transportation Investments report was released in 2014, a carefully negotiated ten-year plan that reflected the joint priorities of the Metro Vancouver governments. They listed a new four-lane Pattullo Bridge, a subway line on the Broadway Corridor and a new Surrey LRT line. There is no mention of replacing the Massey Tunnel with a 10-lane bridge built over the Fraser River at Highway 99 that will spur more development and more traffic.
The four-lane Massey tunnel opened in 1959 and municipalities on both sides of the tunnel – Richmond and Delta – have pressed Victoria for some kind of fix for the growing congestion. In 2004, the province announced a seismic upgrade, and two years later, it proposed to twin the tunnel.
In 2012, the province switched gears when Premier Christy Clark announced the new bridge.
Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie initially sounded warm to the plan: He was quoted in the government's news release at that time saying "we are looking forward to being part of the planning process to replace the Massey Tunnel."
But Mr. Steves, concerned about the environmental footprint of the Premier's bridge, has been persuasive. On March 1, Mr. Brodie and Richmond council asked the province for all studies and business plans that were produced for the previous plans – on the expectation that there is a less costly alternative. At the same time, they asked for a federal environmental review of the project and they encouraged the B.C. Auditor-General to review the quality of the evidence that was used to justify the bridge plan.
Mr. Steves said in an interview that the province has still not responded to the information request. "They said they would be open, but they have given us nothing." He believes the B.C. government is dragging its heels on delivering information that might feed opposition. "What they haven't told us is the cost of the alternatives. They are doing with the Massey bridge exactly what they are doing with the Site C dam – they want to get it past the point of no return."
Mr. de Jong has taken a principled stand that his government has a duty to assist the public in finding out how their tax dollars are spent. A $3.5-billion project that has not yet developed social licence would be a good place to demonstrate that commitment.