Stephen Rees's blog

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

Debunking MoTI again

with 2 comments

Massey-Bridge-renderingOn April 1, the provincial government put out a Fact Sheet claiming that a cable stayed bridge can be built on the silt and mud of the current tunnel site. I have expressed my doubts before, but it is now claimed that new engineering techniques will allow a bridge to be built now that were not available at the time a tunnel was chosen. I am not an engineer, so I am willing to defer to those with expertise in that field. What I am qualified to say is that a bridge is not necessary to solve the current traffic congestion, and that adding transit capacity in this corridor is the only way to ensure that the present problem of delays can be resolved. Simply moving them elsewhere solves nothing, and encouraging more trips by cars is not doing us any favours either. Removing the tunnel might suit the ambitions of the Port of Vancouver but there is no acknowledgement by the Province that this includes increasing the depth of the ship channel. And, so far as I can tell, the disastrous impact that would have on the ecology of the estuary has not even been adequately assessed, let alone the idea that it could somehow be mitigated

The rest of this post is by Tom Morrison – and I will let it speak for itself

Re: Massey Tunnel Replacement Bridge Fact Sheet

I read with interest the Massey Tunnel replacement bridge fact sheet, originating with MoTI and published in The Delta Optimist. It suffers from a certain lack of precision which this letter will attempt to remedy.

The logs of the two boreholes drilled to 335 metres from surface for the Massey Tunnel replacement bridge show only sand and silt, with decomposed organic material as far as 280 metres from surface, ranging from 20% to 50% water content. While the boreholes did encounter layers of stiff, dense material, core recovery ranged erratically with depth from 100% down to as little as 0%, the missing material being so soft that it was not recovered in the coring tube. The question that I posed some time ago: “Given the foundation conditions, can a bridge be built at reasonable cost, if at all?” remains unanswered, beyond the obvious fact that you can build (almost) anything, provided you spend enough (taxpayer) money doing so.

Before the Massey Tunnel was built, Crippen Wright Engineering wrote the following report:

Crippen Wright Engineering Ltd. Comparative Report on Fraser River Bridge and Tunnel Crossings at Deas Island. December 1955

Page 5: “Surface and subsurface investigations show that the site is well suited to the construction of a tunnel.”

Page 6: “Subsurface investigations disclose soil with relatively low load bearing characteristics, and there is no bed rock at practicable depths; the foundations for the main piers will require an extensive pile driving program.”

Page 8: “Bridge piers and anchors will require very expensive foundations since there is no bed rock or other good bearing material at any practicable depth.”

The report did not say that a bridge could not be built, just that it would be very expensive to do so. The foundation conditions were one reason, among many, why a tunnel was chosen instead of a bridge.

The fact sheet points to other bridges built nearby:

The Alex Fraser bridge.

Bazett, D.J., McCammon, N.R. Foundations of the Annacis cable-stayed bridge. Canadian Geotechnical Journal, Volume 23, No. 4, 1986, reads as follows:

Page 461: “On the south side, the stratigraphic sequence consists of glacial and interglacial sediments at least l00 m thick, which have been overridden by at least one of the major glaciers. They are hard or very dense and form good foundation bearing materials.”

“In sharp contrast, the north bank subsurface deposits consist of approximately 65 m of postglacial sediments resting unconformally on late glacial and older glacial marine sediments.”

Figure 3 shows the north tower as built on piles bottoming in layered material described as:

“Glaciomarine and marine sediments. Stiff to hard. Grey clayey silt interbedded with stony equivalents up to 4 m thick and layers of gravelly sand.”


“Subaqueous glaciofluvial sediments. Very stiff to hard, dense grey silt, sandy silt, clayey silt, and silty sand grading into medium to coarse sand with thin layers of gravel at depth.”

This contrasts with the 335+ metres of sand and silt encountered at the Massey Tunnel replacement bridge site.

The first Port Mann bridge.

The first Port Mann bridge was a 4-lane structure, opened in 1964.

See Golder, H. Q., Willeumier, G. C. Design of the Main Foundations of the Port Mann Bridge. Engineering Institute of Canada, 1964.

Page 1: “On the south side of the river the soil conditions were worse than on the north side and consisted of a layer of soft peat to a depth of 15 ft. overlying soft organic silts and clay silts down to about 40 ft., below this again was a compact peat underlain by clay to a depth of from 45 to50 ft. Layers of sand of varying density, with occasional layers of silt extended down to a depth of about 110 ft. and below this was gravel and sand to 120 ft. depth. From a depth of 120 ft. to 190 ft. the soil consisted of soft to firm sensitive clays and silts with occasional sand partings. Below this was compact granular material, some of which was till or till-like and some of which was probably waterlaid sands and silts which had been loaded by ice in the past.

“Whatever the actual geological history of this material, for the purposes of this paper it is referred to as “the till” or “the till-like material.” Artesian water pressure existed in some of the lower gravel layers. The foundation problem for the bridge stopped when the till-like material was reached.

“On the north side of the river the conditions were simpler consisting of a thick sand layer overlain by some compressible material and overlying a clay layer of some 60 ft. thick. Below this was the till-like material.”

Till, also known as glacial till or boulder clay, is defined (McGraw Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction, 2003.) as:

“An unstratified glacial deposit which consists of pockets of clay, gravel, sand, silt, and boulders; has not been subject to the sorting action of water; usually has good load-sustaining properties.”

This contrasts with the 1,100 ft. of sand and silt encountered at the Massey Tunnel replacement bridge site, from which till is notably absent.

The new Port Mann bridge.

The new, 10-lane Port Mann bridge opened in 2012.

A web note by International Bridge Technologies, Inc. has this to say:

“Foundations for the new Port Mann Bridge are generally 1.8-m (5.9-ft) steel piles or drilled shafts, supported on a firm ground till layer under the loose sand deposits at a depth below the river.”

The Pitt River bridge.

The 6-lane Pitt River bridge was opened in 2009.

International Bridge Technologies, Inc. The Pitt River Bridge. 2011, reports:

Page 5: “The geotechnical conditions at the site were not favorable. As expected in and around the river, deep layers of soft soil were present. The firm till layer existed some 30m below the mudline. While it could be shown that skin friction had the ability to carry the vertical loads of the bridge, the Owner stipulated that the piles be embedded into the till.”

This contrasts with the 335+ metres of sand and silt encountered at the Massey Tunnel replacement bridge site, from which till is notably absent.


Sorenson, J. New Pitt River bridge pier pilings push envelope. Journal of Commerce, August 15, 2007.

“The construction of the pilings supporting the piers for the new Pitt River bridge will push the envelope for British Columbia bridge construction, says project manager Ross Gilmour of Peter Kiewet Sons Ltd.

“Pilings are being driven to a depth of 100 metres to support the piers for the new bridge. By comparison, the depth of piers driven for the existing bridge was 60 metres.

“The construction of the pilings supporting the piers for the new Pitt River bridge will be pushing the envelope from what is normally seen in B.C. bridge construction, says Peter Kiewet Sons Ltd. project manager Ross Gilmour. ‘For piles of this size and the depth to which they are being driven, for all intensive purposes, we are pushing the envelope of what has been done. It is not the biggest pipe or the deepest in the world but it is on the edge of the envelope,’ he says.”

“Gilmour says pilings for the new bridge are being driven to a depth of 100 metres to support the piers for the new bridge. By comparison, the depth of piers driven for the existing bridge was 60 metres. (The new Golden Ears Bridge connecting Langley to Maple Ridge has piers driven to a 90 metre depth across the larger Fraser River).

“ ‘I wasn’t here then,’ he says, when the existing Pitt River bridge was constructed, but, he guesses that technology had not advanced to drive piles deeper during the 1970s. (Over the years, there has been some noted sinking of the existing bridge structure.) Gilmour says that the area in which the Pitt River bridge sits is mainly clays and silts, which vary in depths throughout the Fraser Valley. “What it means is that there is nothing solid to get a foundation on until we get to that (100 metre) depth,” he says. Exploratory drilling has been done to ensure the foundation material exists at that level and is suitable.”

No such foundation material is evident in the 335-metre boreholes drilled on the site of the George Massey Tunnel replacement bridge.

The Golden Ears bridge.

The 6-lane Golden Ears bridge was opened in 2009.

See Yang, D., Naesgaard, E., Byrne, P. M. Soil-Structure Interaction Considerations In Seismic Design For Deep Bridge Foundations. 6th International Conference on Case Histories in Geotechnical Engineering, Arlington, VA, August, 2008.

Page 2:  “The subsoil conditions at the main river crossing consist of loose to medium dense sands, up to 35m thick on the south bank of the Fraser River and typically 20m thick within the river channel, resting upon normally consolidated to lightly over-consolidated clays and silts extending to the bottom of the deepest test holes drilled up to 120m below the ground surface.”

No such foundation material is evident in the 335-metre boreholes drilled on the site of the George Massey Tunnel replacement bridge.

The fact sheet refers to the 6-lane Sutong bridge in China, opened in 2008.

See Bittner, R. B., Safaqah, O., Zhang, X., Jensen, O. J. Design and Construction of the Sutong Bridge Foundations. DFI Journal, Volume 1, No. 1, November, 2007.

Page 4: “The soils at the pylon site consist mainly of firm to stiff CL clay extending to elevation -45m followed by layers of medium to very dense fine to coarse sands and silty sands with occasional loam layers. Bedrock is located at approximately 240 m below riverbed.”

This contrasts with the 335+ metres of sand and silt encountered at the Massey Tunnel replacement bridge site.

The fact sheet refers to the 4-lane Rion Antirion bridge in Greece, opened in 2004.

See Biesiadecki, G. L., Dobry, R., Leventis, G. E., Peck, R. B. Rion – Antirion Bridge Foundations: a Blend of Design and Construction Innovation. Fifth International Conference on Case Histories in Geotechnical Engineering, New York, April, 2004.

Page 4: Figure 5. Generalized Soil Profile, shows borings going to 160 metres below sea level intersecting 30-80% clay layers, the balance being sand and silt. This material may be more favourable to foundation construction than the 335+ metres of sand and silt encountered at the Massey tunnel replacement bridge.

The fact sheet refers to the Jamuna River bridge, Bangladesh – 4 lanes plus railroad, opened 1998.

See Barr, J. M., Farooq, A., Guest, S. Foundations of the Jamuna Bridge: design and construction. ETH, Zurich, 1999.

Page 250: “The site lies in the Bengal geosyncline which is continually subsiding, leading to the deposition of sediments brought down from the upper reaches. At Sirajganj the depth to basement rock is as much as 6km.”


“Soil investigations undertaken between 1986 and 1988 during Phases I and II of the Feasibility Studies approximately 1 km from the final alignment showed recent alluvial silty sands, loose at the surface becoming medium dense with gravelly layers below a depth of about 50m extending to about 100m where hard silty clay overlies a dense mica silt.”

This contrasts with the 335+ metres of sand and silt encountered at the Massey Tunnel replacement bridge site.

The fact sheet cites: “Numerous major bridges over the Mississippi River in the United States.”

Taking one at random, let us look at the I-70 bridge at St. Louis, MO.

Geotechnical Report, I-70 Mississippi River Bridge, Volume I – Engineering Report, St. Louis, Missouri – East St. Louis, Illinois. Missouri Dept. of Transportation, Job No. J6i0984, Missouri Dept. of  Transportation Bridge No. A6500.

Page 6. “While the bedrock is exposed in the Illinois bluffs several miles away, none outcrops in the project area. The bedrock surface ranges from 10 to 40 feet below the surface on the Missouri upper bank to 70 feet at the west bank, then slopes downward eastward along the project to a depth of 130 feet near Illinois Route 3.”

This bridge site is underlain by shallow bedrock.

The 6-lane Biloxi Bay replacement bridge was built in the more challenging conditions of the Mississippi delta in 2007.

See Thompson, W. R., Held, L., Saye, S. Test Pile Program to Determine Axial Capacity and Pile Setup for the Biloxi Bay Bridge. DFI Journal, Vol. 3 No. 1, May 2009

Page 14: “In general, the soils at the site consist of sands and clays of Pleistocene or early Recent age. The surface deposits are typically early Recent sands and soft clays. Beneath the sands are

Pleistocene deposits of very stiff to stiff clays and medium dense to dense sands.”

Borings went to 160 feet from surface (Figure 1), encountering stronger material than that underlying the George Massey Tunnel replacement bridge site.

The fact sheet states: “Thousands of hours of professional geotechnical and bridge structural engineering have been dedicated to ensuring that the new George Massey replacement bridge and its supports are appropriately designed for the conditions at the crossing site and for a major seismic event.” The Ministry will doubtless have no objection to sharing the reports that this work must have generated.

The bridges cited by the Ministry fact sheet are 4- and 6-lane structures, all founded – ultimately – on a firm bearing layer capable of supporting the weight of the bridge. If a bearing layer, capable of supporting the heavier 10-lane Massey Tunnel replacement bridge, exists within the 335-metre depth from surface exposed by the two boreholes, it is not obvious. The MoTI is planning a heavier bridge than those cited on apparently weaker foundation material.

Assuming that the planned bridge can, in fact, be built, the question remains: “Can it be built for any reasonable cost?” Time will tell.


That is not the only Delta resident not taken in by Todd Stone and his flunkies. To reward you for reading this far, here is some more debunking

Dear Editor,

Transportation Minister Todd Stone was either sadly misinformed or
lying to the press at the impromptu groundbreaking ceremony held in the
former Delta firehall when he claimed that the proposed bridge replacing Massey
Tunnel is not being built to accommodate Port Metro Vancouver (PMV) since
“large ships aren’t able to turn around in the Fraser River anyway”(1). He
conveniently forgets that the Vancouver Airport Fuel Delivery Project (2) on
the north side of the Fraser River, approved by PMV’s environmental assessment
office, provides a terminal and a 80 million liter tank farm for unloading
Panamax supertankers carrying hazardous jet fuel. That terminal location allows
the jet fuel supertankers to turn around with the help of tugs before they
are escorted out to the Salish Sea. At the recently approved Fraser River Surrey Docks project, Panamax-size coal ships will be loaded and turned around (3). Similarly the LNG terminal location on south side of the Fraser for the LNG supertankers also provides capability for turnarounds (4).   PMV initially requested that the air draft of the proposed bridge be raised to 65 m from 57 m to allow taller cruise ships, LNG supertankers and freighters to go past each other under the bridge (5, 6). PMV has since then recommended 59.6 m for a tall single ship passage only.

The removal of Massey Tunnel and replacing it with a high ten lane
bridge and subsequently dredging (7) the river deeper is all in aid of PMV
providing unfettered access for larger ships to go further up river and
thus further industrialize the Fraser River (5) and destroy its habitat and
estuary for salmon fisheries and wildlife (9).

Yours safely,

Jim Ronback,
System Safety Engineer (retired)

Tsawwassen,. BC

P.S. Replacing a four lane tunnel with a 10 lane bridge may not
necessarily reduce one’s travel time if it creates a Braess’s paradox (8)
in the overall transportation network. We need confirmation that this
paradox will not occur.

1) “Stone also categorically rejected the notion the tunnel was being
replaced to accommodate Port Metro Vancouver, which isn’t contributing
to the project, saying large ships aren’t able to turn around in the
Fraser River anyway.”

2) Vancouver Airport Fuel Delivery Project

3) “Port Metro Vancouver has approved a revised shipping plan that
would see deep-sea vessels loaded at the Fraser Surrey Docks.
… The new plan involves the same amount of coal—four million
tons a year. But instead of 640 barges, some 80 Panamax-size
ships will be loaded each year. However, a longer ship loader
will be required, and extensive dredging would be necessary so
that there is room in the river to turn the ships around. The ships
are 225 metres in length.”
Revised coal shipping plan approved- Patrick Brown
Island Tides, Volume 28 Number 1 January 14, 2016

4) LNG Fraser River export project approved by National Energy Board
The liquefied natural gas would be exported from a facility in Delta, B.C.

5) “The port (PMV) has long been an advocate for the Massey Tunnel replacement
because of port-related traffic congestion in the tunnel and the constraints
on deepwater vessel traffic. For years, the port has cited the pre-built
sectional tunnel’s shallow draft as a major impediment to expanding
commercial river traffic.”
Port Metro wants Massey bridge higher to allow biggest LNG tankers, May 22, 2015

6) Update on George Massey Tunnel Replacement
– City of Richmond, July 10, 2015

Trevor Langevin, September 2016

8) Braess’s paradox is a proposed explanation for a seeming improvement to a
road network being able to impede traffic through it.

9) The Questionable Science of Vancouver’s Port Expansion
A flawed environmental impact assessment may have consequences for the western sandpiper.
by Amorina Kingdon , Published November 28, 2016


Written by Stephen Rees

April 8, 2017 at 2:03 pm

2 Responses

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  1. We have a similar situation here in Stuttgart, where the city is determined to make the main station underground, despite this meaning a reduction in the number of trains that can pass through per hour.

    One major part of the project will be tunneling through strata that is so unstable that there is no technology to drill it, and no company willing to take the risk, ut the city and state are adamant that somekind of technilogy will be developed so they are pressing ahead with the rest of the project.

    This, of course is unrelated to the fact that Stuttgart is crammed into a narrow valley and is having a very lucrativ building boom at the moment, or that the railway takes up a vast tract of very valuable building land…

    Andy in Germany

    April 9, 2017 at 10:54 am

  2. This is a very important thing to get right. I’ve worked on projects where even 20 m of peat negates a lot of planning capacity and confines construction to very expensive mitigation measures. Everything placed on top of that soft soil profile sank. But no real bearing capacity even at 335 m for a very heavy structure? It’s irresponsible to proceed any further even if this was Atlanta.

    If the BC Libs had any scruples they’d release the geotechnical investigation results. As it stands, flubbed ground breaking ceremony and all, it appears the politicians placed the cart before the horse, then became too entrenched in their stubborn adherence to a questionable, unnecessary project to pull back. Maybe they now prefer to let the NDP cancel the bridge project. If so, then hopefully a different government would build another tunnel for transit and tell the LNG industry with its deeper draft ships to kiss off in favour of renewables that happen to produce a lot more jobs on top of their superior environmental benefits.

    Alex Botta

    April 10, 2017 at 11:51 am

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