When Premier Christy Clark christened the Evergreen Line tunnel-boring machine “Alice” on March 7, 2014, she honoured Canada’s first female geologist.
Alice Wilson’s legacy includes the 1947 children’s textbook The Earth Beneath Our Feet, but what’s going on with the rapid-transit project above and below Port Moody and Coquitlam recalls another Alice—one who fell down another hole in the ground into a bizarre “wonderland”.
Like the White Rabbit, who was late for a very important date, the government revealed late one Friday afternoon last February that Alice was tunnelling slower than the advertised eight metres per day. The summer 2016 opening was delayed to fall 2016. At this year’s September 25 board meeting, TransLink’s vice-president of engineering and infrastructure management, Fred Cummings, revealed that Alice had been stalled for five months and finally restarted the previous week.
Asked if he knew when the $1.43-billion Burnaby-to-Coquitlam Millennium Line extension would open, Cummings’s reply might have flattered Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll himself: “Depending on how the boring goes, that will determine when the service date is. We don’t have a date for that yet.”
In the 1980s, Tri-Cities residents were promised future rapid transit, and it’s looking like they could actually be waiting until 2017 for their first ride. The 11-kilometre line has encountered a cascade of problems, and the outcome could have ripple effects on Vancouver’s proposed Broadway subway.
Just a week after Clark’s 2014 christening photo op, a double whammy: a concrete span over Como Lake Road shifted at 1 a.m., and, just before sundown the same day, an ambulance had to take a heavily concussed worker to hospital after a hose knocked him down.
By April, WorkSafeBC had investigated poor exhaust ventilation from the tunnel as well as bullying and harassment at the staging area in a former Andres winery. English-speaking workers there complained of a language barrier with managers from Italian tunneling subcontractor SELI. WorkSafeBC granted SNC-Lavalin at least eight variances to allow temporary foreign workers on the job without underground-excavation supervisor certificates.
Then a launching truss fell June 17, 2014, on the North Road guideway. A month later, a tractor trailer carrying a concrete section flipped on a highway offramp in Richmond. On December 2 last year, a worker refused to operate a rail gantry crane. WorkSafeBC found that workers had complained for months about the crane’s brakes not working, and it could find no records of inspection since late May 2014.
SELI WAS ALSO SNC-Lavalin’s partner on the Canada Line, which used a machine named “Sweet Leilani” to bore side-by-side 5.3-metre-diameter tunnels for 2.5 kilometres under downtown, on schedule, between June 2006 and March 2008. For the Evergreen Line, 10-metre-diameter Alice is drilling one big tunnel; when it is finished, crews will install the tracks and a wall to separate them. Partnerships B.C., the government’s privatization middleman, explained in a March 2013 project report that a single tunnel would be quicker. The same document, however, acknowledged “the risk of unknown geological conditions being encountered during tunnelling”. A 2011 geotechnical report by consultants Golder Associates warned of variable soils, sticking and clogging clays, abrasive minerals, boulders, and groundwater on the tunnel route.
SNC-Lavalin agreed to shoulder extra costs under the fixed-price contract, but is a fixed-price contract really so? Victoria taxpayers expected a new Johnson Street Bridge by September 2015 for $63 million on a fixed-price contract with PCL Constructors Westcoast. By mid-November, the cost had risen to $99.1 million, due, in part, to faulty Chinese steel, and the bridge isn’t expected to be completed until early 2018. Victoria and PCL have already lawyered up.
But sinkholes above the 2.2-kilometre tunnel route have attracted the most attention. Alice had progressed 400 metres by the start of October 2014. Later that month, the first of four sinkholes opened up on Port Moody’s Chateau Place. Another came at nearby Cecile Drive last January, at around the 675-metre mark. By April, the tunnel had reached the halfway point. Another sinkhole appeared on June 5 this year at Port Moody’s intersection of Clarke Road and Seaview Drive, where Alice remained until September.
In early October, during an informal visit by the Georgia Straight, the tunnel-portal sites appeared deserted, without any major signage. The south portal in Coquitlam was open, with no security guards in sight, and a blue perimeter fence was wide open. Over at the Barnet Highway north portal’s location, again with no security around, an industrial exhaust fan whirred.
Farther up Clarke Road, A & H Drilling crews injected grout under the pavement while Canadian Dewatering crews tended holes in the road near large hoses being used to pump out water downhill. Dump trucks on Barnet were loaded one-by-one on November 8 with tonnes of muck displaced by Alice.
Two weeks later, the site was quiet, except for the fan and workers from a conveyor-belt repair company. Inside the fence by Columbia Street, a fading copy of July 2013 safety-committee meeting minutes was stapled to a wooden noticeboard with a list of emergency phone numbers and a map showing the way to an area hospital.
A November 23 map on the project website showed Alice within 100 metres of its breakthrough destination by Kemsley Avenue and Clarke Road, and heavy machinery and material were parked by the south portal.
Lindsay Meredith, a Simon Fraser University marketing professor, lives a few blocks downhill from the Clarke and Seaview intersection and the huge black asphalt patch to repair the sinkhole. He blames the Evergreen Line tunnel trouble for an unwelcome change to the ravine on his property. One stream slowed to a trickle and another swelled beside it. A bank that should have been dry after the summer drought became waterlogged.
“I put in thousands of hours and wrecked my back down here, and thousands of dollars,” Meredith said. “Well, you can see what’s happened: bridges over empty chasms, fundamentally.
“I haven’t heard any bloody apologies yet. I certainly heard no promises about, ‘Yeah, we’re going to fix this for you.’ ”
Repeated calls to Evergreen Line project director Amanda Farrell, who is also Partnerships B.C.’s CEO, were not returned. By email, she referred comment to the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, which would not grant requests for a tour and interview with Minister Todd Stone. SNC-Lavalin spokesman Louis-Antoine Paquin refused comment.
ONCE UPON A TIME, the project was going to be a light-rail system costing less than a billion dollars. Meredith fondly remembers that a southern route, near United Boulevard, was pondered instead of a tunnel.
At a June 2007 meeting, officials from Douglas College worried that their hopes for a light-rail station near their Coquitlam campus were slipping away. Meeting notes obtained under B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act show that attendees included Christy Clark (then temporarily out of politics) and Forrest Parlee of Burrard Communications (owned by Clark’s then-husband, Mark Marissen), TransLink’s government-relations contractor, and they discussed “what is happening politically, the lack of cohesive TriCity support for rapid transit, splinter groups pushing SkyTrain, etc.” They decided to draft an open letter, and Clark planned to meet with local B.C. Liberal MLA Iain Black.
TransLink chair Malcolm Brodie declared in mid-July 2007: “The light rail transit [LRT] system for the northeast sector is the number one rapid transit priority for TransLink,” while awaiting funds from Victoria and Ottawa. Then, in early 2008, TransLink and the government switched gears. The new business case recommended “ALRT or SkyTrain-like technology” by assuming that lower operating costs, faster travel time, and more riders by 2021 would offset higher construction costs.
Burnaby city council, which expected an LRT station north of Lougheed Town Centre, was perplexed. A staff report said the 2007 business case “found LRT was not only more affordable but also fit better within the communities it served and possessed superior customer features” and claimed the new business case was “based on possibly questionable ridership estimates.” Burnaby’s concerns fell on deaf ears.
What happened between reports? Mike Harcourt, who grew fond of SkyTrain and SNC-Lavalin while B.C. premier from 1991 to 1996, helped TransLink pick a new 15-member board in December 2007. Two-year appointee Robert Tribe was a 2002-retired SNC-Lavalin executive vice president who remained a transport-division advisor. His 2008 and 2009 disclosure forms show no conflicts of interest, but his name is in the Elections B.C. database next to $13,647 in SNC-Lavalin donations to the B.C. Liberals from 2005 to 2008.
When Clark became B.C. Liberal leader in February 2011, then–SNC-Lavalin chair Gwyn Morgan was on her transition team. In October 2012, cabinet chose SNC-Lavalin over the Vinci-led, Bombardier-involved EL Partners and the Kiewit/Flatiron partnership to design, build, and finance the Evergreen Line. Fairness monitor Jane Shackell found nothing wrong with the procurement, but in a 2013 interview she said evaluation of SNC-Lavalin and other bidders was beyond her scope.
Almost three years after winning the bid, SNC-Lavalin’s August 2015–published second-quarter results showed a $27-million engineering-and-construction-division loss compared to the same period in 2014. It blamed “challenging soil conditions relating to the tunnel portion of a mass transit project”. In September, CEO Robert Card quit the post he took in 2012 to rescue the company from several corruption and bribery scandals.
Meanwhile, experts hired by TransLink are analyzing the ground beneath Broadway. A March 2013 study by transport consultants Steer Davies Gleave with SNC-Lavalin said a subway would be a better transportation choice than the once-pondered LRT. The price tag could be $1.98 billion, but Cummings warned that experts aren’t yet within the 15-percent cost certainty required for federal funding.
As the Mad Hatter told Alice at the tea party, it’s very easy to take more than nothing.
Update (Friday, November 27):
Alice broke through and saw daylight in the morning on November 27 when the B.C. government confirmed Evergreen Line completion would be delayed yet again, this time to early 2017. The next election is in May 2017.
Instead of Premier Christy Clark or Transportation Minister Todd Stone, it was TransLink Minister Peter Fassbender who headlined a photo op near the south portal in Coquitlam. Though he pointed to the fixed-price contract, he would not guarantee taxpayers would be shielded from further costs or delays.
“I can’t guarantee, I don’t think any of us know what is ahead,” Fassbender said.
Alice will be dismantled over the next two months. Inside the tunnel, a base for tracks will be created and the centre wall erected.