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.