The constant political back-and-forth in British Columbia, Canada, over how to deal with an aging George Massey Tunnel, opened in 1959, has ping-ponged from uncertainty to a $3.5 billion, 10-lane bridge, back to uncertainty, to no bridge and now to an eight-lane submerged tunnel.
As the political leadership of the province changes hands, those changes flow right into the Fraser River crossing south of Vancouver, B.C., connecting Richmond and Delta.
Preliminary work on the 10-lane bridge option started in 2017, led by the leadership of the Liberal government. But when the New Democratic Party (NDP) took over office in 2017 they promptly canceled the bridge project, burning the $80 million already spent on the project. The NDP leadership opened up a new Metro Vancouver task force to study plans for how to replace the existing four-lane immersed George Massey Tunnel.
An October announcement from Metro Vancouver leaders now encourages the NDP government to start work on an eight-lane immersed-tube concrete tunnel to alleviate traffic between Richmond and Delta.
The new tunnel mimics the immersed tube design of the current four-lane tunnel, although at .6 miles in length it comes slightly longer than the current .4 miles. Contractors could build the pieces outside the river and then sink the concrete into the river trench and join them together. The eight lanes include six lanes for regular traffic — three in each direction — and two more dedicated to transit, along with a multi-use path.
Cost estimates for the new plan vary greatly, on the low end at $3.5 billion (the same price as the bridge that was already in the works) to $5 billion. But those are preliminary numbers.
The timeline for the new tunnel includes eight years of work, with at least three years of environmental assessment and five years of actual construction. The timeline to build the 10-lane bridge was less, as much of the environmental assessment work was already done.
As with any project of this magnitude, supporters and detractors on both sides are up in arms. The Metro Vancouver task force looked at six options, but the 10-lane bridge wasn’t one of those. Instead they bantered about six-lane bridge options, some including using the existing tunnel as part of a final plan, and an eight-lane bridge option. The eight-lane immersed tube tunnel was joined by an eight-lane bored tunnel as an option, but the bored tunnel wasn’t ultimately considered due to the perceived cost of being four times higher than the tube option.
While some leaders claim the immersed tube as the most environmentally friendly, the Tsawwassen First Nation chief voted against the tunnel on environmental grounds, saying he had concerns about the construction work and long-term impact on salmon passage in the Fraser River. He supported a bridge option. The immersed tunnel will also likely have the greatest initial environmental impact of any of the options. The tunnel will likely limit ship passage in the river, which some see as a positive and others as a negative.
Currently, the four-lane George Massey Tunnel, which connects Vancouver with the U.S. border along Highway 99, can alternate to three lanes in one direction during rush hour. The new bridge design essentially keeps the same amount of general lane traffic, with three in each direction at all times, plus one dedicated transit lane in each direction, raising concerns that the new tunnel does little to nothing to ease congestion. There is also concern about the long-term maintenance costs of a new tunnel versus the bridge plan that was already in place.
The latest wave of plans for the George Massey Tunnel replacement will soon enter a public comment period. Don’t expect a patient public, as B.C. leaders have created more false starts on this project than any real progress.
Follow Tim Newcomb on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.