A long-awaited report on potential fixed links between the Sunshine Coast and Lower Mainland concludes that while technically feasible, “none of the options perform strongly” when it comes to cost.
The $250,000 study, announced by the previous Liberal government in early 2016 and expected by the end of that year, was finally delivered to the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure last month, according to the dating on the copy provided to Coast Reporter.
The ministry and engineering consultants R.F. Binnie and Associates presented four scenarios to the public in a series of open houses and online consultations in October 2016. They were: a road link between Port Mellon and Squamish; a bridge across Howe Sound via Anvil Island; a bridge link from Saltery Bay to Earls Cove; and a road from Powell River to Squamish.
Powell River-Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons said the NDP government released the report as soon as it could, and that much of the delay was caused by the need for complex cost analysis of the options.
Of the four, the bridge across Howe Sound – the Langdale Bridge Link – was the only one to get strong public support. Forty-five per cent of the people who took part in the consultations said they supported the idea and 41 per cent chose it as their preferred option. Sixteen per cent were opposed.
Simons said he’s not surprised by those numbers, given that Sunshine Coasters were deeply dissatisfied with BC Ferries at the time. “It wasn’t a pressing issue when the government announced the study… I didn’t get letters saying ‘do something about this.’ I was getting letters about getting the ferry system to work.”
The study suggests the Langdale Bridge Link is also the most feasible idea, but it would come at a high cost and wouldn’t be likely to pay for itself even if bridge tolls were the same as ferry fares.
Binnie concluded that “extremely challenging construction terrain in the area, including steep, rocky terrain, mountain passes, and deep water channels, would result in very high capital costs for all of the scenarios assessed.”
For the bridge across Howe Sound, Binnie said the cost over a 25-year lifespan would be around $2.7 billion (including capital, maintenance and operating costs), compared to the $722 million it would cost to keep the Langdale-Horseshoe Bay ferry service, including planned vessel replacements and other capital costs, over the same time frame.
“Only the Langdale Bridge Link has potential to achieve some cost recovery at ferry-equivalent toll rates,” the report concludes. It also concludes that the Langdale Bridge Link option “has higher potential user benefits… However, these user benefits are also small in relation to the additional costs of construction, maintenance and rehabilitation.”
As well as the four main scenarios, Binnie looked into several alternatives put forward during the public consultations.
They dismissed the idea of a Highway 99-Bowen-Keats-Gibsons link because it would have “high impacts on islands, including private lands” and require “new world record length and navigation height” for the type of bridges needed.
One of the most exotic suggestions, a floating tunnel, was rejected because, while the idea has been studied in Norway, “none [have been] constructed; potential construction risk and cost is expected to be much higher than a bridge.”
Binnie said public feedback shows “general support for a fixed link” because it could improve travel times, boost community development, and bring in more tourism. Its analysis acknowledges higher traffic volumes on a Langdale Bridge Link – as many as 2,000 additional vehicles a day – would have an influence on tourism and other local business development. Local governments, however, told Binnie that extra traffic would also require costly infrastructure upgrades to Highway 101 and local roads.
The company found those opposed to a fixed link were concerned for “potential community impacts and changes to their way of life.” The First Nations that were consulted also expressed concern about the effects of a fixed link on their traditional and current interests and possible disruption to archeological sites.
Binnie said the Langdale Bridge Link could also have a negative impact on the environment, although it would not likely be as damaging as the two road options.
Simons said he doesn’t think the report will be the end of the fixed link debate on the upper or lower Sunshine Coast, but he thinks it “puts some statistics and facts into the argument,” and that might be enough to justify the $250,000 price tag.
As for what the NDP government will do with those statistics and facts, Simons said, “I think the study speaks for itself that this is a hugely costly endeavour… It would not provide value for money and the conclusion is pretty much self-evident.”