Anne Murray: Plans for new Fraser River bridge ignore agricultural and environmental concerns

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      Christy Clark’s plans for a 10-lane highway bridge to replace the 57-year-old George Massey Tunnel under the Fraser River is being met with a very mixed reception.

      Although at first glance it might appear to be a reasonable solution to the horrendous daily traffic jams facing everyone who commutes from south of the river, on closer examination other, more entrenched, problems appear.

      Increasingly, citizen groups, including the newly formed Fraser Voices, are demanding a federal environmental review for the three-kilometre-long, $3.5-billion bridge, a requirement that the megaproject has so far managed to dodge. Notably, the federal government itself is lacking in enthusiasm, as it left the project out of its new budget.

      Wider crossing would merely shift gridlock

      Vancouver rejected the concept of cross-city freeways decades ago, so Highway 99 through Richmond feeds north into two lanes over the narrow Oak Street Bridge, a scene of frustrating traffic congestion every morning. From there, a string of traffic lights and urban streets faces drivers all the way through Vancouver to the Lions Gate Bridge.

      A wider crossing for the Fraser River would simply move traffic congestion from one location to another, which does nothing for people’s sanity, time, fossil-fuel use, or the environment.

      The bridge, as proposed, is another example of poorly justified, piecemeal development that avoids a comprehensive, regional approach to transportation problems. It ignores important environmental issues, such as loss of farmland and agricultural viability, failure to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and disruption of ecologically sensitive river lands.

      Outdated traffic studies will be meaningless

      The bridge's proponents have put much store in studies claiming to show the majority of northbound traffic only travels as far as Richmond. These studies were also used to justify the lack of tunnel expansion when the South Fraser Perimeter Road (now Highway 17) was constructed. They took place before the sudden exponential increase in Vancouver housing costs pushed desperate purchasers farther and farther into the suburbs, and before the latest round of port expansion and the development of two new megamalls near Tsawwassen.

      The studies will likely be meaningless by the time bridge construction begins. Many local residents believe the real reason for the rush to build a bridge is Port Metro Vancouver’s desire to open river passage to larger marine vessels by removing the obstructing tunnel.

      Much of the lowland in Delta is in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) and is actively farmed, but on either side of the river there is a patchwork of roads, communities, and other uses. In a B.C. government video, the proposed bridge is shown in an exaggerated aerial view surrounded by farmland and trees, ignoring houses and condominiums alongside Deas Slough, the Town and Country Inn and adjacent buildings, and the new housing being built on the west side of the highway on the former Captain’s Cove golf course.

      Bridge anything but a "green alternative"

      It is misleading to ignore these developments and present the bridge as a green alternative that will somehow “increase farmland”. Existing ALR lands near the tunnel are for sale as investment opportunities at prices far beyond the reach of local farmers.

      Building a 10-lane highway across the Fraser will only increase the pressure to develop remaining Delta farmland, in the same way that Richmond was developed in the 1970s. Additionally, the continual pressure from the port for more industrial land is in direct confrontation with the maintenance of active farmland. 

      As Charlie Smith wrote in the Straight back in 2013: “It is entirely plausible that [Clark’s] plan for a new bridge—along with the core review [of the ALR]—are designed to undermine the ALR. Building a bridge rather than adding more tunnel lanes could affect the viability of remaining food-producing lands in other ways.

      Dredging of the river for larger ships would become possible if the tunnel were no longer there, and this could increase the size of the "salt wedge" entering the river at high tide, with serious consequences for farmland irrigation. Saltwater in irrigation ditches is already an issue for farmers on the low-lying delta, and it would not take much change to make the land unworkable.

      Vulnerable and important ecological areas threatened

      Important ecological areas lie close to, or right under, the proposed bridge, including Metro Vancouver’s Deas Island Park, Deas Slough, and the South Arm Marshes, a provincial wildlife management area (WMA). The Fraser River’s South Arm brings more than three-quarters of the total river flow to the sea.

      Tall stands of cottonwoods and alder line much of the banks between Ladner Harbour and Deas Island Park. Nesting bald eagles, great horned owls, rufous hummingbirds, Pacific tree frogs, and Yuma bats are among the many species in these riverine woodlands, and several species of salmon swim and leap upriver through the summer months.

      Deas Island Park is popular with picnicking families, kayakers and rowers, cyclists using the Millennium Trail, and those who like walking in a beautiful woodland setting beside the mighty Fraser River. The George Massey tunnel runs out of sight under the park’s southern end, and the new bridge would, apparently, span the river at this same spot. The video shows one of the main bridge supports standing right on the island.

      Marshes' value is internationally recognized

      The South Arm Marshes Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is part of the Fraser River Delta Ramsar site, or “Wetland of International Importance” as designated under the Ramsar Convention, a worldwide treaty for the conservation of wetlands. The marshes were chosen for inclusion in the expanded Fraser Delta Ramsar designation in 2012 due to their ecological value.

      The WMA covers much of the foreshore area eastward from Ladner Harbour Park to Captain’s Cove and a group of five low-lying islands in the river, only accessible by boat. Waterfowl of numerous species visit in the winter, including migrant lesser snow geese. These birds nest on Wrangel Island in the far north of Russia and are listed as endangered in that country. The islands are a favourite location for duck hunting. Great blue herons feed on fish, frogs, and garter snakes in the wetlands, and red-winged blackbirds and marsh wrens nest among the cattails.

      Environmental considerations must be taken into account when building megaprojects and this is usually done by conducting a federal environmental-review assessment. As yet, this requirement has been ignored. The provincial government’s fairy-tale video of the big bridge in the sky over green acres of farmland shows only too clearly the fantasy world they are selling.