Stephen Rees's blog

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

The Massey Tunnel’s future

with 11 comments

The Province of BC is going through its public consultation process. As usual, I get the distinct impression that they have already decided on that they think is the correct technical solution to the problem they pose. Nothing much has changed at the Ministry of Transportation which is still operating in “predict and provide” mode. They continue to follow the pattern set by Robert Moses.

My attention was drawn to this by my Green Party colleague Michael Wolfe (who tweets as @bogberry) “See for yourself “Who Uses the Tunnel?” 1% of traffic is transit vehicles, moving about 26% of people” referring to this graphic

Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 10.13.19 AM

Which adds underneath “HOV and transit currently carry up to 46% of people through the tunnel”

ADDENDUM Please make sure you read the comment by Voony – with a link to his blog – to see why these  MoT transit numbers are simply WRONG

But the whole tenor of the materials (the link above has the entire pdf file) is based on the idea that congestion is getting worse so we must build more space for car traffic. Not that that has ever cured congestion anywhere.

Actually the tunnel now sees a bit less traffic than it used to –

From the 2008 Regional Screenline Survey (measuring traffic volumes in the Lower Mainland):
The total number of vehicles per day in 2008 was 390,972, which reflects a minor decrease of 2.6% from 401,227 vehicles in 2004; the greatest decreases were at the Deas Tunnel (-7.5%) and the Pattullo Bridge (-5.8%) …>

I would like to provide a link to that but it came from Gord Price’s blog – there is none there and a search of the Translink document library gave me lots of other stuff but not that quote.

But “Canadian Veggie” came to the rescue in the comments and provides this useful graph

The MoT actually understates this “Over the past 10 years, average annual daily traffic volumes have seen minimal growth. This is attributed in large part to the fact that the tunnel is already at capacity for a good portion of the day, as well as to improved transit service”

Actually declining traffic is being observed all over the place – Gord Price has turned it into one of the memes he writes about regularly. Sightline has this on two different bridges crossing the Willamette River in Salem, OR. “The data show that traffic across the river has essentially flatlined for the last decade; there’s simply no evidence of growth. If anything, the numbers show a very slight decline, given that traffic reached a ten-year low in 2011. ”

Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 10.36.54 AM

From which you can see that the AM peak is slightly down, but most of the reduction occurs in the evening. 5,000 vehicles per hour is “close to capacity” in the interpeak when two lanes operate in each direction. At peaks, the contraflow lane adds to one direction’s flow at the expense of the other. So if you are south of the tunnel in the mid-afternoon, trying to get north means a longish wait. Or as they say “a single traffic lane is no longer sufficient to manage off-peak direction volumes. Long lineups are causing congestion…”

So why does it need replacement? “the tunnel currently has 10 – 15 years of serviceable life before major operating systems will need to be replaced.” So that is not the actual tunnel itself, it refers to the traffic signals, the ventilation system and the drainage pumps. The sort of things that get replaced on a regular basis.

“At 22 metres below sea level, the tunnel is … too shallow to accommodate the navigational access needs of increasing ship sizes” Two thoughts about that. First is that sea level rise is going to add 6 feet or more to that before the end of the century – that is if we are better at predicting sea level rise than we have been over predicting the loss of arctic ice. Provided of course that you can persuade Richmond and Delta to raise their dykes enough to keep the water out of the tunnel itself. (see next post) But secondly, the expansion of Roberts Bank is going to provide a lot more berthing capacity for very large ships, without having to worry about squeezing underneath the Alex Fraser Bridge. Given that huge amounts of money are being spent on port expansion there – and the South Fraser Perimeter Road too – why does the Port think it needs yet more large ship capacity – and what happens to the existing deep water berths on the Burrard Inlet (finest natural harbour in the world and all that)? I do NOT think that the predictive capabilities of the Port Authority should actually drive the transportation and land use plans of the region, given their current dismal performance.

I did look through the feedback forms, and there is some ability to state that you actually value agricultural land over concrete. But population expansion – and (by implication) more sprawl – seems to be a given. But I would like more ability to state that I do not think the tunnel does need to be replaced, especially when I think that it is likely to be yet another massive cable stayed bridge, with immense ramps on either side that will have to be fitted alongside the existing freeway.  There is no illustration of what that would look like. But it either fits behind all the temples along No 5 Road (where the land has not generally been cultivated even though it is ALR) or  – more likely – along Sidaway and over the golf course – with a nice big interchange at Blundell to gratify the City of Richmond’s ambitions.  Quite how the connections at Steveston Highway might work, my imagination fails.

As part of the context there is also this gem

“Provincial Transit Plan: Consideration will be given to increasing transit share in Metro Vancouver from 11 to 17 per cent by 2020”

Not an actual commitment, of course. And not a very significant target either. I recall that we were talking about a 17 per cent target for 2010 back in 2004 – because it did not seem like too much of stretch back then.

My feedback would be that the tunnel can be made to work more effectively at people moving. And if we really are going to allow more people south of the Fraser then we should get serious about where they will be living and working. Mixed land use might cut the need to travel. “Building complete communities” was what we once called that – not more dormitory suburbs. We could also look at building a transit system with more people moving capacity for the longer term – perhaps electric trains serving the corridor all the way to Seattle, for instance. In the meantime, we simply extend the bus lanes to the south tunnel portal and get them out of the last few hundreds of metres of congestion. And crack down really hard on HOV lane intrusions.

We might also think about what the region is going to need as water shortages and rising temperatures in the California desert mean that it will not be the place which we can no longer rely on for our vegetables and fruit. That maybe instead of expanding ports and pretending that importing miners from China is a “jobs plan”, that we adopt a real economic strategy of import replacement and increasing local resilience.

Actually I think that is my take home message. Next spring we get to chose a new provincial government. It looks like that could be one that takes a new direction. I have a sinking feeling that the NDP will be just as wedded to conventional economic growth as the BC Liberals – and have nothing really different to offer. But perhaps a few Green MLAs can help them see a better way.

POSTSCRIPT – the next thing I read was this BIV profile of Moe Sihota that quotes Glen Clark, which says something about how the NDP and the Liberals are actually the same kind of people

Written by Stephen Rees

December 11, 2012 at 11:24 am

Posted in Traffic

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11 Responses

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  1. I would expect a connection to Steveston Highway to be like the Alex Fraser / River Road/SFPR connection – via a twisty diversion road (maybe even with a roundabout).


    December 11, 2012 at 1:45 pm

  2. Thanks for this Mr Rees.
    I use the Massey tunnel daily and find that most heavy traffic is made of large container trucks by volume.

    I would love to see a skytrain expansion from Richmond to the Tsawwassen ferries. Would you see this as viable?


    December 11, 2012 at 2:17 pm

  3. SkyTrain would not be appropriate since there is not – nor should there be – a lot of urban development between Ladner and Tsawwassen.

    The current twice a day passenger train between Vancouver and Seattle is really slow and does not stop north of the border anywhere. A new fast service would need a separate track from the BNSF mainline that is plugged with freight trains, but could realistically include stops in North Delta and South Surrey. Of course that would mean doing something about the New Westminster swing bridge – which really is well past its “scrap before” date!

    Stephen Rees

    December 11, 2012 at 2:23 pm

  4. Massey Tunnel traffic peaked in 2004 and has been steadily dropping since.
    Ministry of Transportation data here:
    Or if you prefer a chart:


    December 11, 2012 at 3:40 pm

  5. Except the modal split touted by the Province is simply…wrong.

    A much better approximation is here

    Transit modal split is 11% not 26%
    (and it is relatively easy to compute, all link to relevant data are provided in the post above):

    My number are much closer to reality than the MOT ones (the staff at the Open house on Dec 4th has recognized it): Why I am so confident the Province numbers are wrong?

    There is simply not enough buses to carried all the people the MOT says are traveling by bus in the tunnel…so why should I believe other claims advanced by the MOT ?


    December 12, 2012 at 12:28 am

  6. Forgot to mention,

    Why the Province lies on the Transit Modal shift?

    Because they want to convey the message that Transit alternative is already a maxed out on- you will have hard time to find better modal split…what could sound a reasonable claim at 26%, but is not a receivable one when it is at 11%.


    December 12, 2012 at 12:32 am

  7. I often watch the Swiss news at noon time (on TV5) and this week they had daily reports about their national railways. Like many other countries they have trains of various length, including some with only 2-3 cars, depending on the location, possible load factor etc.
    They had lots of delays lately due to snow and freezing rain (it didn’t prevent trains to run at 120 km/hr) so the commuters were calling for the blood of the railway staff…
    At least they HAVE trains galore…

    As any B.C politician ever thought about commuter trains to Squamish/Whistler and White Rock? remind me again how many commuter lines Toronto and Montreal have?
    Swiss EMU:

    The one at left is a diesel-electric Regio-Citadis tram-train from Alstom. The one at right is a Bombardier Flexity tram. A tram-train runs on normal railway tracks in the suburbs and on tram tracks within a city.

    Red frog.

    December 12, 2012 at 12:34 am

  8. Why not a transit-only bridge (express buses, LRT, whatever) and leave the tunnel for commercial and border access use?

    With transit, it doesn’t have to be The Widest Drowning In Debt Bridge In The World to move a tremendous number of people.


    December 13, 2012 at 12:26 pm

  9. @ Red Frog, every time I see images of the Swiss railways I can’t help thinking how apropos similar trains would be to Vancouver Island to replace the hopelessly inadequate E&N (with, conveniently, its right-of-way still largely intact — but will need an extension from Courtney to Campbell River), and of course, as commuter rail around almost every Western Canadian city.


    December 13, 2012 at 1:00 pm

  10. Thank you for explaining the non-need for increased channel depth for larger freighters. To make matters worse, enabling such vessels would be a huge problem for ALR land near the South Arm of the Fraser. Port Metro Vancouver already purchased the fertile 81 hectare (213 acre) Gilmore farm in the ALR near the south end of No. 8 Road, undoubtedly for its industrial purposes, as it expresses contempt for agricultural ones. Since the port’s federal connection allows it to ignore the provincial ALR status, the port will likely keep buying up farmland for industrial purposes if a deep channel makes docks on the Fraser Estuary more lucrative. I have discussed this and additional factors in “The George Massey Tunnel NON-replacement option” on the Richmond’s Garden City Conservation blog at


    December 14, 2012 at 9:34 pm

  11. Something needs to be done drastically to the Massey Tunnel area, and all the surrounding areas around it. They need priority lanes for Transit, also there should be a design for the transit stop to be in the middle of the hwy in both directions. If you look at Marys-ville in Washington they have a great safe transit stop in the middle of the hwy. The current ones are not safe and extremely difficult to get to, no side walks terrible lighting just to name a few issues. If you are going to build a new crossing do it right the first time!!


    January 17, 2013 at 1:13 pm

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