B.C. NDP Leader Carole James has reversed her stance on the controversial Port Mann Bridge issue.
In a phone interview, the Straight asked James if she was in favour of B.C. transportation minister Kevin Falcon's recent announcement that the bridge will be replaced by a “super-sized”, $3.3-billion tolled 10-lane structure that will be financed through a public-private partnership.
“Yes,” James confirmed from Victoria. “You have to have a bridge. You have to have a crossing across there. It's very clear that the traffic is high enough that you need to have a bridge there.”
James denied that her position has changed since she spoke at a convention in September 2007. She said the NDP has always stayed on its one salient message: any infrastructure upgrades must be undertaken as part of a “comprehensive transportation strategy”.
“Just building a bridge is not going to fix things,” James said. “You have to have a crossing that includes transportation options, that includes rapid transit, that includes light rail to the [Fraser] Valley. I met with the mayor of Surrey [Dianne Watts] about a month ago to talk about light rail in Surrey and the options that could be there. So it needs to be part of a comprehensive strategy. These guys haven't done that, and we're going to continue to push for that.”
When James spoke at the 2007 annual convention of the Union of B.C. Municipalities, two days before the arrival of former U.S. vice president and environmental celebrity Al Gore in Vancouver, she was in opposition to the then-planned $800-million twinning of the Port Mann span that Falcon had announced in 2004.
At the time, she said: “If the objective is to reduce the traffic congestion that drives commuters crazy and reduce greenhouse gases that are ruining our planet, then transit, not blacktop, has to be the priority.”
Opponents of the provincial Gateway program say they are disappointed that James has done a political about-face.
“It's definitely disappointing,” Eric Doherty of the Livable Region Coalition told the Georgia Straight by phone. “But it also raises questions about whether they [NDP] are serious about tackling climate change, and also whether they are really serious about creating jobs in B.C. Jobs in the automobile sector are about exporting jobs out of the country and out of the province.”
Ben West, healthy communities organizer with the Wilderness Committee, responded: “It seems clear to me that there is no place on Earth where anybody has built their way out of congestion.
“They're right to highlight the fact that it should be part of an overall plan,” West told the Straight. “But, I mean, really, what that is pointing out is that this [super-sized bridge] isn't really going to solve the problem.”
Both James and Surrey-Whalley NDP MLA Bruce Ralston told the Straight in separate interviews that Falcon will have the government contract with the private contractor signed by the time the May election rolls around. They each claimed this will make the new bridge a done deal even if James becomes premier in May.
“I'm a realist,” James said. “That contract is going to be signed. Are we going to be able to buy back a contract with a private company that would cost millions? No. I'd rather spend those millions on transit. I'd rather make sure that the supports are in place than have to buy back a private contract.”
Doherty said he has a problem with the fact that James will not outright oppose the new bridge, especially based on the financing arrangements that have the province putting up $1.15 billion in the form of a “repayable loan” to the private-sector partner, according to a February 4 government release.
“It's a public-private partnership that even the editorial board of the Vancouver Sun has questioned, and the chances are that if Carole James was to win an election, she would be the one to decide whether or not to sign the contract,” Doherty said. “The U.K. publication Project Finance is not so sure it's going to be a ”˜done deal'. They are being really guarded, but they are saying there are real questions about whether this financing is going to go through, whether anybody wants it.”
Doherty did not rule out the new bridge needing an Olympic Village–style bailout in the future.
“It's one thing to step out of the way of a done deal,” he said. “It's quite another thing to acquiesce to something that is going to need an even bigger bailout to go ahead.”