Dermod Travis: Seven reasons why it's time to hit pause on the Massey tunnel replacement project

Earlier this week, Metro Vancouver publicly opposed a 10-lane toll bridge that will be built across the Fraser River

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      (Integrity B.C. executive director Dermod Travis posted this article on Facebook after Metro Vancouver declared its opposition to a $3.5-billion toll bridge to replace the George Massey Tunnel.)

      1. Audit first, tenders second

      As part of its Performance Audit Coverage Plan 2015/16–2017/18, B.C.'s auditor general—Carol Bellringer—announced last July that her office would conduct an audit “to evaluate the quality of evidence to support the decision to replace the George Massey Tunnel”.

      So why not wait a few months? Let Bellringer's team evaluate the evidence and report back on whether it justifies spending $3.5 billion.

      It's a rare opportunity to do the audit before, not after hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns for a bridge that might be used less than what it replaced, like the new Port Mann bridge does now.

      2. At $3.4997 billion, it's a steal. Order yours today and we'll throw in an underpass at no extra charge. Shipping and handling charges may apply.

      In 2012, Public Safety Canada released a report on the construction industry, titled Economic Sectors Vulnerable to Organized Crime: Commercial Construction. The report notes that: “Cost underestimation cannot be explained by error and seems to be best explained by strategic misrepresentation, i.e. lying.”

      It's a view shared by others. In “Cost Underestimation in Public Works Projects: Error or Lie?” (Flyvbjerg/Holm/Buhl—click download on the upper left to read), the authors write: “We conclude that the cost estimates used in public debates, media coverage, and decision making for transportation infrastructure development are highly, systematically, and significantly deceptive.”

      Speaking of which, B.C.'s transportation ministry estimates that the proposed Massey bridge will cost $3.4997 billion (yes, you read that correctly).

      Here's a mystery: if the proposed three-kilometre, 10-lane Massey bridge will cost $3.5 billion and won't be finished before 2022, how is it that Montreal's 3.4-lilometre, six-lane Champlain bridge—now under construction and to be completed by 2018—will cost $4.2 billion?

      3. The B.C. government's track record at infrastructure procurement isn't so hot

      Last November, deputy health minister Stephen Brown dropped this little bomb on the public accounts committee of the B.C. legislature when it was reviewing the health ministry's Panorama computer system debacle:

      “I think a fundamental issue that the auditor general is raising is not just about contract management in the sense of procurement and general contract management but, in fact, the capacity of the ministry to manage very complex contracts and interface effectively with the vendors.”

      Brown's not alone in that view.

      From Public Safety Canada's 2012 report: “Our sources in B.C. also indicate that government officials responsible for procurement lack the requisite expertise in relation to commercial construction projects. Many of those who formerly had the expertise have retired or moved on to the private sector.”

      4. Working both sides of the street

      Following Premier Christy Clark's 2012 announcement that the Massey Tunnel would be replaced, Jeff Scott, president and CEO of Fraser Surrey Docks, had this to say:

      “Premier Christy Clark’s announcement to replace the George Massey Tunnel is great news for the hundreds of people who are employed at Fraser Surrey Docks. This announcement displays the government’s ongoing commitment to creating a strong environment for economic growth.”

      It actively lobbied the government on its corporate growth strategies.

      Fraser Surrey Docks is part of the Australian-based Macquarie Group.

      Funnily enough another part of the group—Macquarie Capital Infrastructure—was looking for a vice president last July. The posting included this line: “Participating in a team as developer and financial advisor for the $2.5bn Massey Tunnel Replacement Project in Vancouver.”

      Some might see that as working both sides of the street.

      5. If it ain't sourced, it don't count

      It may have escaped the government's notice, but the public doesn't really trust much of what the government says.

      Earlier this year, the transportation ministry released a two-page fact sheet—Debunking Massey replacement myths—but not one source was cited. 

      Peter Fassbender, minister responsible for TransLink, tweeted the fact sheet. He was inundated with tweets asking for the source material. Dead tweet silence from him.

      6. Grand opening specials

      The government isn't so hot at estimating when infrastructure projects will be finished by, either.

      The Evergreen Line, which had been “on time and on budget” until it was no longer “on time and on budget”, was to have opened in 2014. It won't open until 2017.

      Victoria's new Johnson Street bridge started at $63-million. It's now $105.6-million and climbing, an increase of 67.6 percent. It had been scheduled to open in 2015 and is now projected to be open by 2017.

      The engineering firm working on the Massey project is MMM Group. It's also the prime consultant behind the Johnson Street bridge. In addition, it designed the four-lane, two-span Nipigon River bridge in Ontario that broke earlier this year.

      7. Stakeholder buy-in

      With Metro Vancouver mayors giving thumbs down to the project, there's not much public buy-in for it.

      It's why Bellringer's performance audit could prove invaluable. If the government's numbers are all on the up and up, what could it possibly fear from taking a few months to let the auditor general do her thing and report back?

      Now that would really debunk myths, if they are indeed myths.