09/20/2013 02:55 EDT | Updated 11/20/2013 05:12 EST

Massey Tunnel To Be Replaced With Bridge (POLL)

B.C. Gov't

VANCOUVER - Premier Christy Clark announced a major bridge project Friday to replace the aging George Massey Tunnel under the south arm of the Fraser River to help break up what she says is one of the worst traffic bottlenecks in British Columbia.

Clark, who announced plans to replace the tunnel last year, told municipal politicians attending the annual Union of B.C. Municipalities convention that she expects construction to start in 2017, a scheduled provincial election year.

Clark said report released Friday concludes there is public support for a new bridge at the existing tunnel location on the current Highway 99 corridor between Richmond and Delta, B.C.

The report indicates that those questioned supported a bridge with the belief that it would relieve traffic congestion and improve area traffic safety.

The premier said the report concludes that doing nothing is not an option.

Clark said she could not immediately estimate the cost of the project or whether it would include tolls for drivers.

At a news conference after her UBCM speech, Clark stood in front of a large photo that included an image of a bridge crossing over the Fraser River where the current tunnel exists.

She said the government has an idea of how much the entire project could cost, but she's certain contractors will do their best to provide cost-conscious bids.

"We have a feel for how much it might cost and we're confident we can finance it, but we're still working on some of those details," Clark said.

To provide context for the financial scale of the tunnel replacement project, Clark pointed to the recent Port Mann Bridge project, where a new six-lane, toll-bridge bridge between Surrey and Coquitlam was constructed.

"The Port Mann Bridge itself was about $830 million and the associate improvements along the highway, the Cape Horn Interchange, etcetera, were another couple of billion dollars. That'll give you a kind of a sense of the project cost of the whole project. It could be in that neighbourhood."

She said commuters heading to Vancouver from the city's southern communities will appreciate smoother traffic flows, but a new bridge improves economic access for the B.C. and Canada.

"If you are a commuter coming to work from Tsawwassen, it's a headache, but for our economy though it's a real bottleneck and it makes it tough for goods from all across the country to be able to move through our ports. We need to fix that."

Clark said engineering and technical work is already underway to develop a project scope and business case for the proposed bridge.

Simon Fraser University's city program director Gordon Price said replacing the George Massey Tunnel appears to be a one-off solution to deal with traffic congestion. He said in a statement a bridge does not address problems with the transportation system.

Clark also announced at the UBCM convention that local governments in the northwest part of the province will be get grants of $150,000 to develop plans to manage growth connected to proposed liquefied natural gas developments.

Clark said her government and northern leaders are assessing needs for housing, water, sewer, health, education and justice services.

NDP natural gas critic Robin Austin says he met with Clark this week to discuss his concerns about aging infrastructure and the expected LNG boom.

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