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The Middle: Bridges, tunnels, and roads – oh my!

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When it comes to transportation infrastructure, governments of all stripes need to refocus on what people actually need

It was a dark and rainy November afternoon when the inspiration for this edition of The Middle hit me.

A simple trip, along an all-too familiar path to visit relatives for dinner, we drove through a Lower Mainland landmark: The Massey Tunnel.

Growing up in South Delta, Tsawwassen specifically, it has been a factor in the majority my commutes since securing my license at 16 years + 1 month.

With an almost otherworldly level of detail I flash back to my first pass through it, as a small child. My mom had prepared us for the dark descent, and I failed miserably in my attempt to hold my breath. It felt like forever as I nervously waited to catch a glimpse of the light at the end of that tunnel, and the radio buzzed with that tell-tale lost signal.

That was more than 40 years ago but, oddly, the nervousness I felt back then is amplified today.

Yes, I’ve always been truly terrified of The George Massey Tunnel.

Living in Tsawwassen and working in Vancouver, some days those fears needed conquering four or more times each day.

At first, the fumes amplified my carsickness as a passenger. Then, as a new driver it was the tightness of the lanes. Still later, I’m all about being aware of the structural shortcomings. (Perhaps it’s the puddles? Could be the cracks? Definitely the drips mid-tunnel.)

Being “stuck in the tunnel” has long been the stuff of my nightmares. I’m certain I’m not alone in this — see my fellow claustrophobes. My terror of the tunnel could be based in just not liking confined spaces, or maybe it’s more than that.

When politicians started talking about fixing or replacing The Massey Tunnel (whether bridge or new tube) many of us regular commuters were relieved: there would be a safer way to and from the city!

Quick history:

The Deas Island Tunnel build was started in 1957, after much complaint over the ferry system (can you imagine?) that served that south arm of the Fraser River.

One of the strongest advocates of a permanent crossing was former MLA Nehemiah “George” Massey, who represented Delta between 1956 and 1960. The Deas Island Tunnel opened to traffic March 23, 1959 — and in 1967 it was renamed for Massey, three years after his death. That’s why you hear it called by both names…but I digress

Whatever you call it, the tunnel was designed and constructed in the ‘50s. At that time very little, if any, seismic impact was studied, therefore not taken into consideration when the concrete tubes were placed on 600 meters of sediment that, we now know, would likely liquify during a major earthquake.

In the mid-2000s the tunnel was assessed and subsequently retrofitted, to “increase survivability,” in the event of a big shaker. There was a Shakealarm, and “earthquake early warning system” installed in 2009.

With all this in mind, driving through still freaks me out. You?

In September 2012, there was great optimism that there would be an answer to the “Tunnel Problem” when the provincial government announced consultations would begin on a replacement (of some sort).

One year later, it was decided that rather than expand the tunnel, a 10-lane bridge would be constructed. It looked really fancy, as it should, because the $3.5-billion price-tag seemed remarkably massive.

Many complained that it was too much to spend to simply “push” the bottleneck of traffic north to the Oak Street Bridge during the morning rush…while many others were just relieved that there was some plan.

Fast forward four years to September 2017, and the newly-elected NDP government put the George Massey Tunnel Replacement on hold, launching an independent technical review, headed by Stan Cowdell.

Not a big surprise that the new government would want to do its due diligence before laying out billions – but for commuters it was back to waiting and commuting through the crumbling concrete.

This must’ve been a very long exposure

In June of this year, the review was given to transportation minister Claire Trevena, whose plan was to “take the summer to read the report before releasing it to the public.”

More waiting.

Next up this will go to the vastly revamped Mayors Council to get their say on the subject. Will those newly-minted mayors do what’s best for the region, or choose to spend in their respective areas? After all, the infrastructure budget is limited.

At what point does simple street safety eclipse politics? How bad does this need to get?

With skin in this game (family in South Delta) I’m reminded how I felt the first time it was reported that the aging Pattullo Bridge was being closed during a wind storm.

Wind.

Having to close an 81-year old bridge on windy days really means that bridge is unsafe every day.

There was lots of fighting about Pattullo vs. Massey as a “one or the other” fix — how about we just make these roadways safe? I understand how a fancy “mega project” such as a 10-lane Massey Bridge looks on a government’s resume…but not in the name of Pattullo Bridge falling down.

We need to find The Middle to fix what is broken.

Writing this I realize that there will be a backlash of “we need to get cars off the road” and “take transit.” Growing up, my parents would leave Tsawwassen at 7am to drive to Vancouver for work and return around 7:30pm. If they took transit, it would mean leaving earlier and arriving later, unsustainable for our family. Sorry, cycling was never an option – it’s actually illegal to bike through that tunnel.

I don’t think my family was unusual – or that much has changed.

Arguments for/against dredging the Fraser for larger vessel access is a big piece of this, certainly. Let’s not fight about that. Let’s do the safe, affordable, smart fix. Keep costs in line with today, rather than “build for decades from now.” The cost to taxpayers is also important to debate. What can no longer be debated is the fact that his tunnel (and that bridge) is unsafe for citizens.

Globally, we worry about climate change and political unrest (there’s too much), world peace and food supply (there’s not enough), and on and on. At home we need to pay the bills and keep the family healthy.

Somewhere in The Middle we must address crumbling infrastructure that has been politicized to the point of putting people in peril.

 

Jody Vance is a born and raised Vancouverite who has spent 30 years in both local and national media. The first woman in the history of Canadian TV to host her own sports show in primetime, since 2011 she’s been working in both TV and radio covering news and current affairs. 

 

SWIM ON