Eric Doherty: In New Brunswick, Gateway freeway expansion cancelled despite signed contract

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      It seems that “Gateway” is a popular name for unpopular freeway projects. Like in the Lower Mainland of B.C., the provincial government in New Brunswick had been trying to push through an expensive freeway expansion scheme called Gateway over the objections of local residents.

      The similarities between the two Gateway schemes is uncanny. There was even a bog that was threatened by Gateway on the outskirts of Saint John, New Brunswick—Renforth Bog. In the Lower Mainland it is Burns Bog in Delta that is threatened by the Gateway freeway scheme.

      The difference is that the people of Saint John who opposed plans to widen the Mackay Highway to six freeway lanes have won already. On March 18, the government of New Brunswick sent out a media release titled “Mackay Highway project amended”. The release states: “After serious consideration, our government has determined that the Mackay Highway expansion project will be amended. It is part of this government’s mandate to review all capital projects to reduce costs. As a result of this review, we have concluded that the proposed widening of the Mackay Highway is not necessary at this time.”

      Of course, this is impossible according to the logic of many fence-sitting politicians here in B.C. It was a done deal—the contract had been signed. But Saint John residents kept the pressure on, and municipal politicians such as Mayor Ivan Court attacked the freeway plan on both economic and environmental fronts.

      There is probably something to the New Brunswick government’s claim that cancelling the Gateway freeway expansion contract was based largely on budget pressures. Conservative premier David Alward is under considerable pressure to cut a ballooning deficit, as is Premier Christy Clark here in B.C. Ghost freeways—which were started but never completed—are very often the result of strong citizen opposition combined with a budget crunch.

      However, a larger historical shift may also be at play. The budget problems facing both B.C. and New Brunswick are largely due to the economic meltdown triggered in part by the record spike in oil prices in 2008. Now, only three years later oil prices are soaring again, and again threatening widespread economic disruption. Even a moderate disruption in Middle East oil supplies could push prices toward $200 a barrel, which would spell global economic chaos.

      We were warned about the potential for a destructive cycle of oil price spikes and economic crashes years ago—the oil price rollercoaster. For example in the wake of the 2004 oil price spike, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hirsch Report warned of exactly this likelihood. Hirsch recommended an immediate crash program to reduce U.S. dependence on oil, noting that even 20 years would be a tight time frame to make the necessary changes.

      Urban freeways are largely designed to facilitate sprawling suburban subdivisions, but it is hard to sell automobile-dependant real estate when gas prices are soaring and people are worried about their job security. Premier Alward’s cabinet may be facing an immediate budget crunch, but they can also see that the age of cheap and stable oil prices is over.

      In B.C. our new premier and the NDP leadership contenders are facing some difficult choices. For decades voters have responded positively to any blacktop proposal, with only a few notable exceptions. But now, politicians can see that the ribbon cutting ceremony for a new freeway might correspond with another oil price spike—making their project look misguided and reckless. Building for a future that no longer exists is not much of a problem for politicians, as long as they are only screwing up the lives of future generations. It becomes a big problem if that future arrives when they are still in power.

      Governments should have stopped expanding urban roadways, and shifted to investing in public transit decades ago when global warming was identified as a serious threat. However, both politicians and voters often put immediate gratification ahead of longer term well being. The good news is that there is no longer much immediate gratification to be gotten from cutting ribbons on new freeways.

      Eric Doherty is a member of the Council of Canadians’ Vancouver-Burnaby chapter and StopThePave.org. He is helping to organize an Earth Day action against the South Fraser Perimeter Road freeway on April 22.

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      10 Comments

      Denise

      Mar 21, 2011 at 4:03pm

      This is Fabulous News! Yippee its Spring and time for change! We need farmland more so into the future than highways, freeways et al. Lets follow suit and rip up Gateway!
      'Come to a Teach-In this Sat. Van. March 26th 1 - 4:00pm Grandview Calvary Baptist Church 1803 E. 1st Ave. Lets organize for a better future for all in Metro Vancouver. We deserve better than this.

      Bernadette Keenan

      Mar 21, 2011 at 4:07pm

      In BC the Gateway's project new Port Mann Bridge / Highway 1 expansion is opposed by Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan. The South Fraser Freeway is opposed by North Delta's MLA Guy Gentner and South Delta's MLA Vicki Huntingdon as well as the residents of Delta and North Surrey communities like Bridgeview and Sunbury that will be impacted until the construction is stopped. Our former North Surrey MP Penny Priddy also opposed the South Fraser Freeway.

      What most if not all South of the Fraser municipal politicians support is more transit including the Evergreen Sky Train Line to Coquitlam as well as an Inter Urban Railway from Chilliwack to Scott Road in North Surrey . Such projects would greatly reduce the need for expanding the Highway 1 and a new Port Mann Bridge. At least in the case of the InterUrban the price tag is very attractive too - at $500,000,000.00 or half a billion according to a report by Rail to the Valley we could have an electrically upgraded InterUrban complete with stations, albeit low frill - so non- fossil fuel dependent.

      This is in contrast to the combined $ 7 to 10 billion cost for the South Fraser Freeway (which will probably total close to $2 billion) plus however many billions the Highway 1 / Port Mann will finish costing us - never mind the billions we will be spending for generations in tolls to maintain and pay off just interest on the loans.... This when it is abundantly clear from recent events in Japan that we need to be investing in seismic upgrading our schools and other infrastructure instead of building more. Also raising food costs make it clear we need to be preserving our farmland instead of paving it over.

      If the New Brunswick Government can get it right and cancel or amend a senseless Freeway project, what is stopping our BC politicians?
      BernadetteK

      Evil Eye

      Mar 21, 2011 at 10:04pm

      Sorry Bernie, ain't goin to happen here, because the Gateway program is all about delivering taxpayer's money to the road Builder's Association - legally, by designing a grossly overbuilt highway that cost about 10 times more than it should.

      By the way, the full build Rail for the Valley/Leewood Interurban report is a Vancouver/Richmond to Rosedale 140 km Interurban for about $1 billion.
      Just look at the massive overpass construction in South Delta, by the Hwy. 17 overpass and the Superport Railway Line. It is bloody massive, grossly over designed.

      Gateway is not about building better highways, it is all about the Liberals paying off their political friends.

      NBer

      Mar 22, 2011 at 9:23am

      I agree with you on the similarities and the positive news of the cancellation. However, while deciding not to expand the highway, the government is still improving interchanges, on and off ramps and access. This is all to improve the large suburban commute into the city of Saint John by car. It would be more positive if less was being done to accommodate the individual opportunity.

      But don`t get me wrong, this is awesome news for NB and I really hope that Clark does the same thing soon.

      ml johnstone

      Mar 22, 2011 at 9:33am

      what is encouraging about the New Brunswick action, is that they are doing this when NB has very very little to offer in the way of public transit

      edoherty

      Mar 22, 2011 at 11:38am

      I don't know much about the public transit situation in NB, but I do know that there is always a competition for funds between freeways and other priorities. Hopefully some of the money saved will go to improve transit, cycling and walking conditions in and around St John.

      RealityCheck

      Mar 22, 2011 at 3:10pm

      None of you have ever been to New Brunswick in your life. Keep dreaming. The majority of BCers in Metro want to be able to move around. Gateway does that. It's already a done deal, so it's time to move on.

      Tim

      Jul 26, 2011 at 2:35pm

      WE NEED MORE FREEWAYS!! Stop the eco-terrorists from making us live in a 3rd world backwater. More freeways makes for a better society. Down with tree huggers and enviro freaks.