Anne Murray: Is the Gateway Program the only vision for B.C.’s Lower Mainland?
“Gateway” is a word that has been working overtime. Synonymous with B.C.’s and Canada’s trade with Asia, it represents an ambitious vision for the movement and storage of goods and people, by land, sea, and air, promoted by a powerful coalition of transportation agencies. The Greater Vancouver Gateway Council has convinced federal and provincial governments to approve, fund, and fast-track multibillion-dollar highways and extensive rail and port developments. These massive investments are changing the landscape around the Lower Mainland forever.
Overlooked in the rush to move more trucks and container ships is a more balanced vision that values the attributes which make living in the Lower Mainland so attractive. That vision embraces all aspects of the natural and physical environment, including rural landscapes, air and water quality, and the birds and other wildlife that inhabit the Fraser estuary. It also values activities that depend on a healthy environment, such as farming, fishing, and outdoor recreation. It is the type of thinking that produced the Agricultural Land Reserve in 1973, the regional district’s Green Zone in 1992, and the Lower Mainland Nature Legacy Program in 1995. Many citizens support such a vision, but strong political leadership is currently lacking.
With a dearth of considered alternatives, the Gateway Program surges ahead. Its plan for the next two decades will see one million more cars on the road, a whole new port facility at Roberts Bank, more than a million additional container truck trips, and industrial land built out to the maximum. Gateway includes the $2-billion South Fraser Perimeter Road, a truck highway plowing through acres of farmland and rolling over habitat in Burns Bog, home to sandhill cranes, southern red-backed voles, and Pacific water shrews. A 1993 version of the Gateway plan, known as Transport 2021, admitted that the identified transportation corridors contradicted the goals of the region’s Livable Region Strategic Plan (set to be replaced by the Regional Growth Strategy).
The Gateway Program is a destabilizing influence on the ALR, already under siege from decades of development proposals. In 1968 and 1969, 4,000 acres of prime Delta farmland were expropriated for back-up lands for the Roberts Bank superport. Following the pro-ALR sentiments of the 1990s, these lands were offered for sale back to the original farming families. Now these same lands are being repurchased through a series of curious deals, particularly those along the B.C. Rail spur line to Deltaport, where rail yards and container storage are planned. Land speculators and agencies are driving up the price ahead of the bulldozers. For example, a 46-acre property beside the B.C. Rail line, sold by the Crown in 2002 for $575,000, was resold in 2008 for $3.5 million. Some of this property is now owned by B.C. Rail, purchased at a premium price. The assessed value of another piece of land, close to the route of the SFPR, jumped suddenly from $628,000 in 2002 to $4.3 million in 2004; by 2009, it was valued at $8.4 million. The Gateway plan calls for all “vacant” lands south of the Fraser to be made available for industrial use. Agriculture becomes even more challenging under these conditions, with the cost of land prohibitive for new farmers.
Meanwhile, out on Roberts Bank, an area identified as critical to internationally significant populations of western sandpipers, dunlin, and other migratory shorebirds, Port Metro Vancouver has announced its intent to construct Terminal 2 at Deltaport. Following closely on the Third Berth expansion of the existing terminal, this second terminal would double the footprint of the port, significantly increasing both ship and truck traffic. The coastal environment at the mouth of the Fraser has undergone intense changes as a result of port construction, with increased light and noise pollution affecting marine life, including salmon, the stability of the delta slope, and the quality and extent of shorebird and habitat. An increase in ship traffic would have an inevitable effect on the endangered orca population and other sea mammals.
Politicians assumed permission to proceed with the Gateway plan on the basis of their election and no formal public hearing has ever taken place. By splitting developments into discrete projects, government agencies and their industrial partners have evaded a comprehensive environmental review process that would have critically examined cumulative effects of their over-arching vision. This was particularly noticeable in the environmental review of Deltaport’s Third Berth project, when it was claimed that Terminal 2 was not under consideration at that time, despite its frequent appearance on planning documents and webpages.
All urban developments at the local government level undergo public hearings, with opportunities for voters to sway their elected leaders regarding any change to their community. Municipal councils must physically sit through such hearings and listen directly to their constituents. In contrast, federal and provincial politicians, once elected, are answerable only in Parliament or the legislature, provided these are in session. No legal public hearings are held on major infrastructure projects. Communities are instead allowed to give input through “stakeholder meetings”, information sessions (often with two or three options for action, but never an option for no), and environmental assessment processes that invariably find that environmental effects will occur but that they can be “mitigated” as the project proceeds. The public generally meets with junior level staff and facilitators; the key movers and shakers and senior politicians seldom attend. The only chance the public has to influence federal and provincial politicians is at the voting booth.
The Gateway Program does not have to be the only game in town. Alternative visions would provide balance to regional planning and ensure that government funds are more equitably distributed between all sectors of the economy, as well as to the environment. The public is fully entitled to put forward their views. We should not only do so, but we should expect our elected politicians to pay attention.
Anne Murray is a naturalist and the author of two books on Lower Mainland nature and ecological history—Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay and A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay.