Transportation Minister Todd Stone is defending the province’s method of planning major projects like the Massey Bridge, saying it is standard procedure to announce the government’s intent to proceed before a business plan is fleshed out.
The government has been under fire after information requests failed to turn up any preliminary rationale to justify Premier Christy Clark’s announcements in 2012 and 2013 that the George Massey Tunnel would be replaced with a new bridge.
“It always starts with a statement of political intent,” Stone said, referring to the premier’s announcement. “You put your marker down. You establish your political intent. You then engage the public and the stakeholders extensively, refine the scope. Then build your business case from there. You release all that and you then get on with building the project.”
Independent MLA Vicki Huntington argued it defies logic that the government could embark on a $3-billion project without any supporting reports or analysis.
Asked if that type of material exists, Stone said there would be cabinet advice documents.
Stone said hundreds of pages of documents have been posted to the project website as part of two rounds of consultation on whether a replacement was needed and then what configuration it should take.
He said it would be “simply wrong” to proceed in reverse order with a business case first because that would mean announcing “fully baked projects” without any chance for the public or stakeholders to shape the outcome.
There is still no business case for the project, but Stone said that will be released “very soon” as part of a project definition report that will also spell out a price tag, the size of the bridge and whether it will be tolled.
The province is aiming for a 2017 construction start and 2022 completion date for the Massey Bridge.
The provincial budget included $53 million in planning work on the Massey project this year and next year but indicated the project remains subject to Treasury Board approval of the business case and funding strategy.
Stone said the government will soon make a a final “go or no go decision” that will be the last of multiple stages of approval. “Once that decision is made then construction will begin.”
The ministry says $30 million has been spent so far.
NDP MLA George Heyman pointed to a 2012 memo from then-Finance Minister Kevin Falcon that cautioned his cabinet colleagues against major spending announcements without a business plan being vetted and approved by Treasury Board.
“We didn’t have a business case in 2012. We didn’t have one in 2013. We were promised one in 2014. It’s now 2015 and we still don’t have it,” Heyman said.
“The transportation minister’s definition of due diligence is that after the premier makes an announcement that she scribbled on the back of a napkin, salute it and go out and try to sell it and then create a business case to support it later.”
B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer has taken an interest in the process, announcing an audit to evaluate the quality of evidence to support the decision to replace the tunnel.
Canadian Taxpayers Federation B.C. director Jordan Bateman said it’s “troubling” that the business case is taking so long and that the province failed to publicly release the basis for Clark’s announcement when it was made.
“If she was floating an idea that a Massey Bridge would be good and ‘We’re going to look into it’ – if that was the statement, that’s one thing. But she very clearly made the commitment,” Bateman said.
“It flies in the face of what the BC Liberals practised when they first came to power, which was trying to make business-style decisions.”
He said the province should have developed some sort of preliminary business case to determine the project appeared viable and then announce a process to explore the options to replace or rehabilitate the tunnel rather than firmly declaring from the outset it would be replaced.
He noted some material was prepared before Clark’s announcement – artist’s renderings of what the new bridge might look like, backdrops for the premier to stand in front of and promotional signs on Highway 99. “There has to be paperwork somewhere.”
Bateman said he is not yet convinced the bridge is needed, since the Pattullo Bridge will be replaced first and it’s not yet clear how that and the South Fraser Perimeter Road will alter future traffic patterns.
“I want to see evidence that this expenditure is absolutely necessary before it proceeds.”
Stone said he’s “very disappointed” Huntington created a public impression that she’d been kept in the dark on the project.
He said ministry staff have met with her repeatedly and provided her office access to much detail on the project.
“It reflects a significant degree of confusion on her part or at worse a sense of misrepresenting the facts, which I think is irresponsible.”