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Rob Shaw: BC United, NDP bump heads over George Massey replacement’s ecological effects

‘I don’t think the constituents of Delta, who make use of Deas Island park, are going to be very happy,’ says opposition critic
Transportation Minister Rob Fleming says the $4.15-billion Massey tunnel project is still on budget and on time for a 2030 completion. An artist's rendering of the project.

The plan to build a new eight-lane George Massey tunnel crossing is still almost three years from beginning construction, but already there are concerns about disruptions and damage from the project.

Delta South MLA Ian Paton, whose riding encompasses one side of the Delta-to-Richmond tunnel, said members of the public will be shocked once they realize some of the projected impacts to popular trails, parks and water access.

“People aren’t going to be happy about it,” said Paton, who recently published a social media video with BC United leader Kevin Falcon to highlight concerns.

One of the more visible impacts will be clearcutting trees on the popular Deas Island Regional Park, which is a protected area of forests, meadows and wetlands for a variety of wildlife species.

A small part of Deas Island is already a Ministry of Transportation right-of-way for the existing tunnel, and the province confirmed it will need to clear at least 4.5 additional hectares of the park — roughly 3.5 per cent of the island’s total 120 hectares — to store concrete structures and equipment.

The plan calls for the restoration of that parkland, though 0.1 hectares will be permanently cleared as part of the new tunnel re-alignment.

“The Deas Island rowing club rows out of there, there’s all sorts of trails for walking, biking, bird watching, and horse riding,” said Paton.

“That’s like 10 acres. That’s a huge amount of land. You cut down a whole bunch of trees, lay down tarp, cover it up with gravel and concrete tunnel parts, how are you ever going to put that back to looking like a tree-covered park?

“I don’t think the constituents of Delta, who make use of Deas Island park, are going to be very happy with that sight.”

Another notable disruption will be to the Millennium Trail, a highly-popular walk and bike path that currently crosses under the entrance to the tunnel, linking Ladner’s residential neighbourhoods to the RiverHouse Restaurant & Pub, the Cascades Casino and Tilbury Industrial Park.

It’s currently the only way pedestrians and cyclists can cross tunnel traffic. Provincial officials confirm it will be closed for at least four years during construction, from 2026 to 2030.

The government cites safety concerns in what will be a busy construction area. The completed project is expected to restore the trail connection in 2030.

“People use that constantly,” said Paton.

“It’s easy to say don’t worry you’re going to put it back the way it is, but who the hell wants the Millennium Trail cut off for five years?”

Paton and Falcon’s social media video also warned about dredge from the Fraser River being dumped on a 16-hectare potato farm in Delta near the tunnel, ruining usable agricultural land.

Provincial officials say they only intend to use 4.5 hectares, or 28 per cent of that farm, and it won’t be a storage site for sludge, rather a location for construction equipment, parking and storage.

The project calls for top soil to be removed from the potato farm, and then put back on four to five years later to restore the agricultural use.

Paton, who is also the BC United critic for agriculture, scoffed at the idea, saying the land will be harmed.

“That’s 11 acres of agricultural land taken out of food production to store a bunch of concrete crap and equipment,” he said.

Another issue Paton highlighted will be 48-hour closures to marine traffic on the Fraser River, which is a busy shipping lane for companies like Seaspan, as well as for fishing, grain, lumber, fuel and the transportation of other goods.

The government said the closures are necessary due to the sheer scope of the project, which will involve laying six football-field sized tunnel elements, each weighing 60,000 tonnes, into the Fraser River.

The 48-hour closures will occur six times, but be spread out over two years.

Paton said many of his concerns would not exist if the NDP government had continued with a previous BC Liberal plan to build a 10-lane, $3.5-billion bridge at the site.

The bridge would have been completed and opened by last year. The NDP made scrapping the bridge a promise of its 2017 election campaign, saying it lacked municipal support.

Transportation Minister Rob Fleming said the $4.15-billion Massey tunnel project is still on budget and on time for a 2030 completion. It has yet to receive environmental approval.

“Trying to make traffic flow much better under the existing infrastructure while we begin the process of the main section of tunnel replacement was our goal, and we're hitting that target,” said Fleming, who cited the Steveston interchange project, to be completed in 2025, which will add transit capacity to Highway 99 in advance of the new tunnel.

“We're also in the environmental assessment process, and we're where we expect it to be. For the first time that anyone can remember, we're actually beginning procurement, beginning formal construction, while the environmental certificate is being sought and in advance of it being issued.”

The province is using a progressive design build model which will see it work collaboratively with a shortlist of companies to design the project as part of the procurement process to eventually select a winning bidder.

The system is supposed to help ensure it remains on scope and budget for whomever wins the contract.

Fleming said he’s confident the Massey tunnel replacement is moving along properly. Paton said the public will be disappointed once trees start falling and trails are closed. Government is expected to award the construction contract to begin work in 2025.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.