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Les Leyne: Concept of island bridges gains traction

There was a time in B.C. when fixed links on the coast were the kind of science-fiction nonsense that brought hoots of derision. Now the government seems to be embracing every one that comes down the pike.
Transportation Minister Todd Stone is suggesting a bridge between the Sunshine Coast and Metro Vancouver in order to attract tourism and investment.

Les Leyne mugshot genericThere was a time in B.C. when fixed links on the coast were the kind of science-fiction nonsense that brought hoots of derision.

Now the government seems to be embracing every one that comes down the pike. The Ministry of Transportation found $200,000 to fund a technical study of the concept of linking Gabriola Island to the Nanaimo region last year. That report is expected to be released soon.

Emboldened by that effort, the ministry last week started talking about an even more audacious venture, a highway-bridge link between the Sunshine Coast and Metro Vancouver.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone pitched it as a response to Sunshine Coast residents concerned about attracting tourism and investment. Left unsaid was the reason for that concern, which is that steadily rising ferry fares are choking the vitality out of a lot of ferry-dependent communities. Linking Vancouver to the Sunshine Coast would involve either a new highway route through the wilderness around Jervis Inlet or a couple of direct bridge connections closer to the coast.

Announcing the idea on the eve of the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention was a surefire way of getting people talking (and changing the channel, to some extent, from complaints about transportation policy).

Those never-ending beefs about ferry fares are steadily dampening some of the instinctive aversion many island residents have to the idea. The more uneconomical fares get, the more reasonable tolled fixed links look as an alternative. The steady decline of the resource economy on the coast over time is also in play. The most obvious sectors to replace all that economic activity that used to be generated by resource industries are tourism and retirement income. Both of them are ferry-sensitive and both would boom with bridges instead of boats.

While waiting for the Gabriola bridge report, a resident who has been advocating the idea for years, Jeremy Baker, appeared before the legislature’s finance committee last week in Nanaimo to brief them on the concept.

“We expect the results to suggest that a bridge alternative would offer major financial savings for the community and the province,” Baker said.

His argument is that ferries are a constant expense that will go on forever and always increase. A bridge is a huge one-time outlay that can be recouped through tolls in a few decades.

The political calculations, at least on Gabriola, are a different story. It was a 600-name petition that prompted the government to start the study. But Opposition MLAs later tabled petitions with 2,200 names opposing the “feasibility study for a bridge that nobody wants.”

Baker conceded that the Islands Trust policy is against any and all bridges and “it’s quite vitriolic, the antagonisms that go on there.”

The initial cost — $100 million or more on Gabriola, likely $1 billion or more on the Sunshine Coast — would have to be borrowed. But the B.C. Liberals have never been shy about borrowing for infrastructure spending.

And the initial cost isn’t the big issue. The key financial factor is the comparison with the current system, with its objectionable fares and the certainty of more increases to come. While the Gabriola study is just a technical review of the merits, the Sunshine Coast study will include a political review of how people feel about it. Liberal MLA Jordan Sturdy (West Vancouver-Sea to Sky) is charged with gauging community interest.

Just So You Know: It’s been 35 years since Social Credit cabinet minister Pat McGeer was the first to seriously discuss a fixed link. He was in cabinet for 11 years and handled six portfolios, and it’s still the first thing people recall about him.

In the mid-1980s, he told the legislature: “I’m terribly proud of that fixed-link study. It would partially end the isolation of Vancouver Island. Having the capital [on the Island] is like having the capital of western Europe on the island of Sicily. That’s why the ministry developed this practical — and I want to stress practical — plan.

“People will look back on this study and say: ‘Boy, did we get a bargain in those days.’ ”

Nobody has ever actually said that — yet. But the government is taking baby steps in the direction he wanted to go a generation ago.