Editorial: Gabriola bridge study premature

Thorough public consultation has the potential to save a lot of money and headaches. When the B.C. government received a petition in 2014 supporting a bridge to Gabriola Island, the Transportation Ministry agreed to a $200,000 feasibility study.

“The signal we have received from Gabriola Island is significant: Almost 700 signatures from an approximate population of 4,000 is a pretty significant number,” said Transportation Minister Todd Stone in announcing the study.

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If Stone can be swayed by a 700-name petition, how will he react to a pair of petitions bearing the names of nearly 3,400 people opposed to a bridge? Or is “significant” only in the eye of the beholder?

The two petitions were presented in the legislature last week by NDP MLAs Doug Routley and Claire Trevena. They come too late to stop the feasibility study — it was commissioned last fall and the results are expected to be released soon. But the petitions send a strong (dare we say significant?) signal that most Gabriolans don’t want the bridge. It’s hard to see a government proceeding with such a project in the face of that much local opposition.

Pressure for the bridge grew when B.C. Ferries announced reductions in the number of sailings between Nanaimo and Gabriola Island, a service that cost about $1.6 million more each year to operate than it brought in from fares, taxpayer contributions and federal subsidies.

A bridge link would improve emergency access to the Nanaimo Regional Hospital, make it cheaper for visitors to travel to Gabriola and provide opportunities for Gabriola youth to work and study in Nanaimo without moving off the island, the bridge petition said.

Proponents recommend linking Gabriola Island to Vancouver Island with two spans, using tiny Mudge Island as a stepping stone between the two larger islands. It’s not a wild-eyed, impractical scheme — the two spans would measure a total of 150 to 180 metres — and those favouring the bridge make good points.

Last fall, Stone said the study would deal only with the physical and financial facts of a bridge link. “We’ll then wait for the residents of Gabriola and stakeholders to review that information and discuss the issue locally before committing to further steps,” he said.

It’s hard to imagine any technical facts overcoming the adamant opposition indicated by the petitions submitted last week, especially since a bridge would contravene policy of the Islands Trust, a federation of local governments serving the Islands in the Salish Sea. The policy states: “No island should be connected to Vancouver Island, the mainland or another island by bridge or tunnel, notwithstanding the existing bridge between North and South Pender Islands.”

Stone should not have ignored the 700-name petition, but he should have looked a little more closely, asked more people. And that could have been done easily and at little expense by including it as a question on the 2014 municipal ballot, similar to the question asked by some capital region municipalities regarding amalgamation.

The B.C. Liberals balked at imposing an amalgamation study on the capital region, saying the impetus should come from the municipalities. That same philosophy should have guided the province regarding the Gabriola bridge.

The bridge link would not be a mere technical convenience, it would alter Gabriola Island’s lifestyle. And Mudge Island, which now has only a few unpaved roads, would become a relatively busy thoroughfare, not something bargained for by the people for whom the island is home.

The people affected should have been asked, in a meaningful way, if they wanted their lives so altered. From the petitions submitted last week, it looks like the government could have saved us $200,000.

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