Les Leyne: Toll question shows paradox of Massey Tunnel project

Les Leyne mugshot genericPicture driving off the ferry after a $74.70 ride from Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen, then paying another several bucks to cross the Fraser River in a couple of minutes.

The B.C. Liberals’ original conceptual video of a huge new 10-lane bridge to replace the Massey Tunnel made it look like an attractive proposition.

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But missing from the images of the new bridge were the toll booths. And tolls would have been a significant factor in the operation of the bridge.

Many who have experienced the rush-hour gridlock at the tunnel would happily pay to avoid it. But not everyone.

The independent engineering review of the tunnel-replacement options cited a paradox that crops up when tolls are imposed. The new bridge would be built to handle more traffic, but the toll would actually reduce traffic.

The Alex Fraser Bridge farther up the river is toll-free, and traffic analysis predicts a fair number of drivers would divert to that crossing rather than pay.

Independent engineer Stan Cowdell said studies predicted a 14 per cent drop in traffic if the new crossing were tolled.

It’s one of the many issues the NDP government — which cancelled all tolls last year — considered before it abandoned the bridge and decided to spend two more years studying how to replace the aging high-volume tunnel.

That’s two more years on top of the year it took to write and digest the 300-page report released on Monday.

And that report landed on top of what the Liberals say were 145 reports on the original bridge plan, plus dozens of meetings with local officials and the public during the five years spent prepping for that project.

To continue the paradox, part of that study will include the idea of reversing course and imposing tolls.

The report recommends that the government consider “allowing any form of mobility pricing to manage future traffic volumes.”

Some kind of mobility pricing is likely in Metro Vancouver’s future.

But the NDP needs a lot more time before it can flip on that key election promise.

There’s a far bigger paradox buried in the report. It has to do with the reasons that Transportation Minister Claire Trevena cited while announcing she is going back to the drawing board.

She ditched the 10-lane bridge partly because the Liberals “did not fully address a number of key considerations, such as community alignment, livability and cost, which likely resulted in stakeholder concerns.”

One of the complaints about the Liberal bridge that was given weight in the review was the “potential for induced vehicle travel and emissions. ”

Local governments objected that: “A new facility having expanded vehicle capacity could induce more vehicle trips. Inducing more vehicle trips runs counter to established regional objectives.”

They also warned it would unleash “pent-up travel demand (travellers who may be averse to sitting in traffic may decide to take more trips in the future as a result of the improved travel times and safety).”

So, oddly enough, the fear was that if the government built an attractive, high-capacity bridge, more people would use it. That concern ignores the curb expected from tolling, as well as the extra emissions generated in gridlock.

Trevena’s decision puts the Massey Tunnel replacement issue back about seven years, and rules out the most all-encompassing (and most expensive) solution.

What are left on the table are cheaper options. They include a smaller six- or eight-lane bridge with piers right in the Fraser River, and some encroachment on agricultural and park land.

Those would complicate environmental approvals, but save $500 million.

The report also recommends reducing expectations, from “eliminating” traffic jams out to 2045 to “allowing a reasonable level at peak periods.”

“Some delay is consistent with all other major crossings in the region.”

Settling for less isn’t necessarily a bad idea. But it’s a tough political sell when it involves years more delay. Being stuck in tunnel traffic for another decade would be marginally more endurable if people knew there was a fix in sight.

All that’s sure now is that a lot of money has been wasted and a lot more arguments have to be thrashed out all over again.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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