Metro Vancouver politicians are expected to ask the federal government to conduct its own environmental assessment of the proposed new bridge to replace the Massey Tunnel, potentially with tougher scrutiny than the one already started by the B.C. government.
The request for Ottawa to run its own review was approved by a committee of Metro directors Wednesday and goes to a vote of the full regional district board April 1.
It follows a similar call from Richmond city council, which fears the new 10-lane $3.5-billion bridge and Highway 99 improvement project may merely shift the congestion bottleneck further north into Richmond rather than solving it.
Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie said Metro has serious concerns about the impact of a major new bridge on the regional growth strategy, as well as on air quality, transportation patterns and the environment.
“I’m talking about increased traffic flow and the resulting increase in greenhouse gas emissions,” Brodie said. “What’s it going to do to the estuary in terms of the bridge itself and the increased traffic on the river of the large tankers bringing materials up and down the river?”
He and others suspect the replacement of a bridge with a tunnel in large part aims to allow bigger ships into the lower Fraser River, although Port Metro Vancouver has cautioned that eliminating the tunnel alone would not enable that – dredging would be required and underwater sewer and water lines pose other impediments to increased shipping.
There is also the province’s attempt to characterize the new bridge as a green infrastructure project for the purpose of securing federal grants. Some mayors see the province’s Massey priority as potentially competing against their request for an unusually large federal contribution to new rapid transit lines.
Brodie said he doesn’t understand how the bridge would improve the environment.
He said he doesn’t want to see a re-run of the B.C.-led assessment of a planned jet fuel pipeline across Richmond that critics fear would put the Fraser estuary at risk of a tanker spill.
“That was a harmonized process where the federal government basically left it up to provincial authorities to conduct the environmental assessment, and then they basically rubber stamped the result,” Brodie said.
He said he wouldn’t be surprised if the provincial review green lights the Massey project, while a federal assessment might reach different conclusions.
“I believe the provincial government is heavily invested in this project.”
Delta Mayor Lois Jackson, a major proponent of the new bridge, opposes the call for a federal review.
The provincial review is already underway and Metro Vancouver reps are part of the working group.
Metro officials have asked for more time to give preliminary feedback to help shape the review.
Transportation Minister Todd Stone said Brodie has “changed his tune” on the bridge project since providing a statement of support when it was first announced in 2012.
“A lot of the Metro mayors seem to like to create this perception that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence with these environmental reviews,” Stone said, adding they sometimes call for a provincial review if they think it will be stronger than a federal one, or vice-versa.
“The federal government is very much plugged into the process that’s underway now.”
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has concluded the project is essentially a highway upgrade that doesn’t trigger a federal review, but Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna could order one anyway.
Stone also cited the planned cycling lanes and potential for future rapid transit on the new bridge.
“This bridge is going to be great for commuters and very important for goods movement as well,” Stone said. “We’re moving forward with it because it addresses the single most important congestion point in British Columba.”
The new bridge is to be funded with tolls, but the government has yet to explain how or if the bridge tolls in the region would be revamped by the time it opens in 2022.