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Fishing for funding on (and under) the Fraser

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Rob Shaw: Never fans of the Massey Tunnel replacement project, the BC NDP are trying to take advantage of election promise-making season and snag a promise that Ottawa will chip in.

The BC government is using the new federal election as an opportunity to try and secure funding for a new Massey tunnel – a project it has never wanted to build and clearly doesn’t want to pay for by itself.

Transportation Minister Rob Fleming unveiled the $4.15 billion plan for a new immersed tube tunnel last week, just three days after federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau plunged the country into a snap campaign.

The hope from BC New Democrats is that in the subsequent four weeks any federal parties looking to stump for votes in Metro Vancouver will get asked about helping fund their solution to the worst traffic bottleneck in the region. All they need is one leader to publicly commit to kick in a third of the project, and the rest of the parties will follow suit as they jockey for around a dozen up-for-play federal ridings in the Lower Mainland.

It’s a smart move by Premier John Horgan’s government. It costs the province nothing to float this project in the election, and it recognizes that Trudeau in particular is willing to say and pay almost anything to secure a majority government. A $1.2 billion federal commitment to the Massey project is almost unnoticeable to a federal government running a $314 billion deficit this year alone.

Fleming made the new tunnel announcement in Richmond, where mayor Malcolm Brodie has been one of the biggest backers of the BC NDP’s decision to cancel the previous 10-lane Massey bridge proposed by the previous BC Liberal government.

The riding of Steveston-Richmond East, which includes one side of the Massey crossing, is also very much in play in the election, having been won by the Liberals in 2015, taken by the Conservatives with a relatively slim margin in 2019, and now on Trudeau’s radar as a swing seat en route to his majority.

Fleming came armed with new talking points to fish for federal cash.

“We’ve made the case that this is a nationally significant trade corridor,” he said.

“From my point of view, it’s very similar to the Gordie Howe Bridge in Ontario and the Champlain Bridge in Quebec. The only difference is this one’s in BC, but it’s significant to getting goods to market south of the border. The government’s made it a priority to improve trade ties with the US. That’s why this infrastructure project is a perfect candidate.”

“It’s known that this is one of the worst congested points, as Mayor Brodie mentioned, in all of Canada,” Fleming added. “We need to work together to resolve it together.”

Getting a bucket full of federal funding would help lessen the sting that BC New Democrats feel at having to build this project at all. The Horgan government cancelled the previous $3.5-billion BC Liberal bridge in 2017 to free up cash to build other more electorally-important infrastructure projects, including the Pattullo Bridge, SkyTrain expansion, and the Broadway subway line.

All of those projects are now secured and underway, so there’s no excuse to continue dragging feet on the Massey. By the time this new tunnel is scheduled to be completed in 2030, it will have been more than 12 years since the previous bridge was scrapped.

The project itself will remain a contentious issue for the life of the Horgan administration. It won’t improve peak commuter times, officials have admitted, despite attempts by BC New Democrats to spin otherwise. It doesn’t add more than the existing tunnel’s six lanes for drivers, because two lanes of the new eight will be dedicated to rapid bus transit. And its environmental assessment process is anything but a sure thing, given it proposes dropping gigantic blocks of concrete onto the bottom of the Fraser River at a time when the salmon using it as a spawning route are suffering a population collapse.

Nonetheless, the new tunnel has the public support of local First Nations and most local politicians, who resented the way the previous BC Liberals forced the 10-lane bridge idea upon them without consultation.

BC New Democrats are mostly just glad to get the Massey project off the desk of the premier and into the real world, so they can’t be accused of stalling it any longer. The only question left will be whether federal politicians take the bait and help cover the cost.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

rob@robshawnews.com

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