Area mayors and B.C.'s Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure pitched conflicting visions Wednesday of how to move people and goods through the increasingly congested Lower Mainland, underscoring tensions that will simmer through the upcoming provincial election.
Transportation Minister Todd Stone led a groundbreaking ceremony for the 10-lane, $3.5-billion Massey Bridge, which will replace the three-lane tunnel that now connects Richmond and Delta. As opponents chanted outside the Delta firehall hosting the ceremony (the event was moved to the firehall to avoid protesters), Mr. Stone insisted the bridge is needed to create a safe route across the river in case of an earthquake and to reduce commuter traffic jams in the region.
But earlier in the day, three Metro Vancouver mayors gathered at the King George SkyTrain station to urge all parties running in the election to commit the money needed for transit improvements in the mayors' 10-year plan.
"We hope this makes parties look beyond the big shiny projects," New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Coté said in reference to the Massey Bridge project.
Mr. Stone was questioned about the mayors' opposition and said: "I don't report to the mayors of Metro Vancouver, I report to the taxpayers of British Columbia."
He said thousands of commuters in Richmond and Delta will be thrilled when the bridge is completed in five years and they aren't spending so much time stuck in traffic.
"If we're not investing in the upgrades that are needed to address the congestion today, how the heck do people think we're going to be ready for the million people arriving in the next 20 years?" Mr. Stone asked, sometimes sounding impatient with all the questions about the cost and necessity of the bridge.
The mayors, who have labelled their initiative #curecongestion, urged current and aspiring MLAs to commit to paying for work on the Pattullo Bridge, upgrades to the 30-year-old SkyTrain system, improvements to the HandyDART system that serves the disabled and expanded bus service.
The group also urged all parties to move forward with the mayors' request to pay for some of the costs through a new regional development cost charge on new construction that would be dedicated to transit.
Mayors have already been successful in their lobbying for transit dollars. The federal government recently committed $2.2-billion to transit projects in the Lower Mainland, including a Broadway subway and a light-rail network in Surrey.
The provincial government, after saying it would only provide its usual one-third share, changed its mind last week. TransLink Minister Peter Fassbender announced the province would match the federal contribution – an increase of $400-million over the original commitment.
Mr. Coté said the Massey Bridge is a concern to mayors because the province made a decision on the project unilaterally, even though it wasn't on a list of priorities for Metro Vancouver. And the cost is significant – almost half the cost of the mayors' 10-year plan, which aims to improve transit for the million people who use it every day.
The day's two public events rippled out to city councillors, who are caught on one side or the other.
Carol Day, a Richmond councillor, helped organize the protest at Mr. Stone's event, which she said attracted at least 50 people.
Ms. Day is one of many who have urged the province to look at other options, from making the port a 24-hour-a-day operation – which would spread out truck traffic and reduce rush-hour congestion – to twinning the tunnel.
"The reason a tunnel was built there in the first place before is because of the sandy, silty soil," Ms. Day said. "It's not ideal for a tower that's going to hold the largest cable bridge in North America."
In Delta, Councillor Ian Paton, a farmer who is running for the Liberals, shook his head at the protests being shown on the news.
"There's too many armchair engineers out there. A tunnel would be an environmental nightmare," said.
Mr. Paton said farmers in Delta and Richmond are strong supporters of the bridge, in part because they currently can't take farm equipment through the tunnel, even though some of them are working land on both sides of the Fraser River.
"I'm the first to admit it's a lot of money," he said, but he is sure the capacity will be well used over the next 100 years. As well, he said, the bridge is needed for the commercial and industrial traffic that is growing in the southern half of the Lower Mainland.