Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Bridges and blacktop likely targets of Liberal accelerated spending

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Vaughan Palmer speculates on the projects that are “ready to go” that may get accelerated funding as a result of the Premier’s announcement this week.

The premier says B.C. will be pitching to bring forward some of the road and bridge projects it is building on a cost-shared basis with the federal government. …

B.C. will also be pressing the federal government to come up with a full share of construction on the $1.4-billion Evergreen transit line to the Tri-Cities area. To date, the feds have put up $67 million of a hoped-for contribution of $400 million.

Still, that project is not ready to go. It needs environmental approval and a private partner to build it.

The Liberals are more optimistic about another $1-billion undertaking, the South Fraser Perimeter Road.

The premier himself cited it Wednesday as an example of a major project that could be “accelerated.”

The project involves construction of a four-lane, 40-kilometre freeway and truck route linking the Deltaport at Roberts Bank to the Trans-Canada Highway near the Port Mann bridge.

The road is one of several elements in the so-called Gateway project, crafted to improve access for trucks and commuters to the port and along and across the Fraser River. The best-known element is probably the $1.6-billion plan to twin the Port Mann Bridge and widen the adjacent 37 kilometres of Highway One.

The transportation ministry is negotiating with a private consortium to build and operate the bridge as a toll crossing.

Falcon said Thursday he expects to award the contract this year or early next. He’d earlier vowed that construction will be underway (“pilings rising from the river”) by the next election.”

All of this is based on the assumption that construction work on private sector projects will have slowed and contractors will be available for these projects. But building bridges – and to some extent highways too – is actually quite specialised. I am not an engineer. But I have worked for consulting engineering companies, and have been watching the road builders for some time. In fact here the engineers working on major transportation projects are a few companies – and every so often we see outside outfits trying to get into what in reality has been a rather cozy little market.

As Eric Doherty was pointing out earlier this week in Delta, some of the major P3 players are now in serious financial difficulties. Indeed some government agencies have also found themselves liable for sudden very large calls for cash as a result of loan guarantees underwritten by failed insurer AIG becoming worthless. Despite billions of dollars being thrown at the problem, credit is still hard to come by for both private and public sector organisations.

Then of course we should also be concerned about some of the very dubious justifications proffered for these projects. The Gateway assumed that imports from China and the rest of the far east through Pacific Coast ports would continue to increase. But they have been steadily declining and with recession now established in the US do not seem to be likely to grow any time soon. Additional port capacity at Prince Rupert and Long Beach is already available – and they both have better landside connections now.  If I was still a consulting economist in the port business, I am pretty sure I would not recommend expansion here right now – and that is before we have even looked at the disastrous environmental impact of the Gateway.

The government has given itself a certificate, but that does not mean the environmental impacts of these projects is benign – or even decently mitigated. The entire process was a sham, and nearly every question that was raised by the proposal was never answered. The proponent did not provide any further information but simply repeated what was already in the published – and deeply flawed – documentation. EAs in BC cannot stop projects – and now it seems offer no protection to communities or local ecosystems.

Shovelling money as fast as you can off the back of a truck did not do Glen Clark any good – and I do not see it working any better for Gordon Campbell. It’s just that he has been better served by the media who have been a great deal easier on the scandals surrounding this government than they were on the last one, even though the amounts involved are a whole order of magnitude greater. Quite why BC Rail is not as big an issue as a backyard deck and a pocket knife I do not venture to guess.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 24, 2008 at 10:21 am

Posted in Gateway

One Response

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  1. Just a note about the Evergreen Line. Gerald Fox’s critique on the Evergreen line’s ‘Business Case’ (I posted the letter on one of your previous blogs) has also been widely circulated in the USA.

    Like RAV/Canada Line, which isn’t a true P-3 because the winning consortium has no risk associated with the project as it is using BC public sector pension plan money as international banks would not lend the money on such a project, the Evergreen Lines ‘real’ business case is not sound.

    Certainly Mr. Fox’s reputation is far stronger than TransLink’s so financing of the metro project will be very troublesome. The Fed’s may not want to invest money into a political hornets next, especially with an election coming as soon as 18 month, during a time of international financial turmoil.

    But good old blacktop politics; rubber on asphalt is Campbell’s reelection tune, just as it was the NDP’s and the Socred’s before. The question is, “is the public tired of it?”

    Malcolm J.

    October 24, 2008 at 3:30 pm

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