Be on guard for blacktop politics

Blacktop politics are still with us in British Columbia. Premier Christy Clark made that clear on Friday when she told the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention that her government will find the cash for some big-ticket projects that will brighten the eyes of many voters - especially those who drive.

The two big ones are replacing the George Massey Tunnel and making the Trans-Canada Highway four lanes from Kamloops to the Alberta border.

article continues below

Even Vancouver Islanders who roll their eyes at being left out of the latest round of goodies - again - know what it's like to drive through the tunnel when it's congested. And most of us have crawled over those steep Trans-Canada passes in the heat of summer.

However, much as British Columbians hate to look a gift horse in the mouth, it's only two weeks since Finance Minister Mike de Jong said the financial outlook was grim and he was cutting spending and freezing government hiring.

In spite of watching $1 billion in expected natural-gas revenue vanish, Clark said Friday she would add $509 million over the next 10 years to boost to $650 million the money available to widen the Trans-Canada. Meanwhile, she committed to begin planning to replace the Massey tunnel, which has been funnelling vehicles under the south arm of the Fraser River since 1958.

The government hasn't given a dollar figure on that one, but Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie told a Vancouver newspaper that whether it's a bridge or a tunnel, he expects it will cost at least $3.3 billion, which is the price tag on the new Port Mann bridge.

Of course, the initial outlay for both these projects will be well shy of the final totals, so the government can hope for some good bounce from the voters without having to plunk down a lot of money up front.

Before they get too excited, though, voters who are champing at the bit for relief from the Massey tunnel blues should cast an eye toward that new Port Mann Bridge. Crossing the bridge used to be free. Now, both the Port Mann and the Golden Ears bridges have tolls.

Gone are the days of Social Credit premier W.A.C. Bennett, who blacktopped highways, brought electricity to rural homes and created B.C. Ferries with fares that now seem unimaginably low. Today, when we are bribed with our own money, there's a good chance we will have to cough up more after the blacktop has been laid.

With the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, Clark continues to lobby for payback of a different kind. She wants a share of pipeline revenue for B.C., and if she doesn't get it, will try to halt the project. The potential benefits to B.C. are even further off than the tunnel and highway projects.

On the other side of the political spectrum, New Democrat leader Adrian Dix could be opening the door for big spending by the NDP by saying he would toss out the Liberals' law requiring balanced budgets. He hasn't made any promises for building or paving, but taking the cap off the bottle makes it more likely an NDP government would start pouring.

This province has decades of experience with parties that try to pave their way to power. Bennett, one of the great practitioners, was in tune with the demands of a growing province in the 1950s and '60s.

Getting in tune with a 21st-century province is more difficult. Voters are not nearly as united on the benefits of blacktop, especially when most of that blacktop is on the Mainland.

Both Clark and Dix should be wary of paving their way to power. That road could lead nowhere.

Read Related Topics

© Copyright Times Colonist