A decision by B.C.'s new NDP government to put a multibillion-dollar bridge project on hold in the Vancouver region has allowed the government to shave $2.3-billion from its debt projections, while renewing a debate about transportation and tolls.
Despite the debt savings, a credit agency warned this week that the decision on the Massey Tunnel replacement project across the Fraser River has caused "further uncertainty" about the province's financial situation.
The NDP government announced earlier this month that it was sending the proposed 10-lane bridge, south of Vancouver between Richmond and Delta, to an independent review and cancelling the procurement process in the meantime.
The bridge proposal, expected to cost as much as $3.5-billion, was announced by the former BC Liberal government and became a significant priority for former premier Christy Clark. But it also drew significant criticism from the region's mayors, who complained that such a bridge was too large, would increase traffic and lead to development. The notable exception has been the mayor of Delta, Lois Jackson.
This week's provincial budget said the cancellation of the procurement process would reduce capital spending over the next three years by about $2.3-billion, compared with a budget the Liberals presented, but never passed, in February. Without the cost of the bridge factored in, the three-year fiscal plan, which runs to 2020, now projects $6.9-billion added to the provincial debt. Bridge construction had been expected to continue until 2022.
One of the prominent bond-rating agencies, DBRS, noted that the changes have created a very unclear picture.
"The George Massey Tunnel Replacement project adds further uncertainty to the debt outlook," the reporting agency said in a report released after the budget.
The new bridge was supposed to be partly paid for by tolls, a revenue source the new government has ruled out after making the elimination of bridge tolls in the region a major campaign promise. The NDP government ended tolls on two Vancouver-region bridges as of Sept. 1.
"Should a tunnel replacement project proceed, the debt appears likely to be taxpayer-supported," the DBRS report noted.
The New Democrats defended the decision in the legislature on Wednesday, saying the bridge approved by the Liberal government did not have buy-in from local mayors and their communities.
"Only one mayor thought that the 10-lane bridge, which would lead into gridlock, was the right fit for their vision," NDP Transportation Minister Claire Trevena said. "They know what they want to see for the Lower Mainland."
The BC Liberals held up the decision as a job-killing mistake that was only made to free up money for other programs.
"They made up their mind before the election. … They didn't tell anyone that they have other priorities," Mike de Jong, who had been finance minister until the Liberal government fell, told the legislature.
"You're allowed to have other priorities.
"What you're not allowed to do, in my view, is to pretend that you're considering something when you've already made up your mind and said: 'We're going to take the money from there, and we're going to devote it. … We'll pay for this instead of replacing the Massey Tunnel.'"
The New Democrats have not said what they have in mind instead of the currently proposed bridge. Previous suggestions include upgrading the existing tunnel or replacing it with a smaller and much-less expensive bridge.
Gary Vlieg, a senior engineer with Port Moody-based Creative Transportation Solutions Ltd., said the province could save quite a lot of money by just eliminating two lanes.
"I think what will end up happening a year from now is an eight-lane bridge – three general-purpose lanes with an HOV [high-occupancy vehicle] and bus lane" on each side, Mr. Vlieg said.
Mr. Vlieg said he didn't believe that anyone would recommend simply shoring up or twinning the existing tunnel because of Vancouver's vulnerability to earthquakes.
"If the tunnel fails, it floods. If a car is in a tunnel, there are not a lot of options. A bridge could fail, but the survivability is higher if you're above the water."
Drivers also tend to slow down more when they enter a tunnel than when they begin crossing a bridge, something that adds to congestion.
Keith Sashaw, president of the Association of Consulting Engineers of B.C., said construction costs could rise by next year.
He also warned that international engineering companies might be wary about bidding again, after having spent tens of millions of dollars on this round of bidding.
The province has promised $2-million apiece to each of the two finalists, but that is nowhere near their real costs for preparing a bid, Mr. Sashaw said.