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Has the time for the Burrard Inlet tunnel finally arrived?

Jean Sorensen
Has the time for the Burrard Inlet tunnel finally arrived?

Has the time for a Burrard Inlet tunnel arrived? The idea is being revisited by City of North Vancouver mayor Darrell Mussatto. But the proposal is also landing at a time when Vancouver real estate is hot. A proposal first put forward in the l990s suggests using reclaimed land to build a prime real estate development that could generate billions in revenues to pay for a tunnel.

It’s one of  almost a dozen proposals that have come forward for a tunnel connecting Vancouver to North Vancouver and all have lost out to a vehicle mentality that favoured bridge construction or reconstruction.

Mussatto, who has come up with latest proposal, said the game has changed. Vehicles are no longer Metro Vancouver’s focus of transportation and another bridge crossing between the two cities would only further congest the North Shore highways.

According to Mussatto, it is time to dust off a tunnel proposal with a fresh look at exchanging the vehicle concept for a rapid transit link to shuttle people rather than cars.

"The time for us to start looking at this is now," he said, as the tunnel would be part of Metro Vancouver’s transit strategy reaching forward to 2040.

The TransLink’s Transport 2040 strategy emphasizes providing more rapid transit and densification of areas along rapid transit lines and de-emphasizing vehicle traffic throughout the region in favor of public transit, walking and cycling options.

The concept of a tunnel under the Burrard Inlet goes back more than a century. In 1894 the Burrard Inlet Tunnel and Bridge Co. was granted permission to tunnel under the First Narrows. In the 1930s, it was again proposed with the link by Stanley Park. In 1954, a $25-million four-lane vehicle tunnel under the First Narrows in the Burrard Inlet was designed by Victor David of David Neon Ltd. In 1967, a proposal was created by Per Hall Associates during Premier W.A.C. Bennett’s reign of mega projects and carried forward.

"There was talk of this in the 1970s," said Mussatto said.

Swan Wooster had made a proposal for a tunnel using reclaimed material to build out a peninsula from reclaimed material that would support a tunnel connection.

Deas Island (Massey tunnel) builders and engineers Hans Bentzen and engineer Kurt Helin (who had worked for the Danish firm Christiana & Nielsen) wanted to use the same building technique used on the Massey project in the early 1960s to build a connection across the Burrard Inlet. The Massey tunnel was one of the first in the world to use an immersed tube tunnel construction method. Prefabricated sections were laid on the waterway bed and joined. Bentzen kept up the idea for three decades, proposing in the 1990s, a $1.2-billion concept with a 70-hectare island off Prospect Point from reclaimed material. Building high-end residential towers could generate financing.

Bentzen’s proposal was one of five in the 1990s by major firms such as Klohn-Crippen Engineering, Sandwell Engineering, Harbourlink (Barry Griblin) and Vimarc Consulting. TransLink has also looked at a rapid transit connection to the North Shore but its 2040 plan, which looks several decades forward into transit planning, uses the two existing bridges, the Ironworkers Memorial also known as the Second Narrows and the Lions Gate at the First Narrows. The two rapid-transit proposed bridge connections are spurs from new lines proposed closer to Vancouver’s waterfront area.

Mussatto sees a better solution: use existing Seabus stations in Vancouver and North Vancouver as transit points. The Vancouver Waterfront station is already a terminus point for the West Coast Express, SkyTrain and the Canada Line.  On the North Vancouver side, Lonsdale Quay is bus terminal.

Mussatto said the distance between the Quay and the Waterfront Station is only 3.3 kilometres, which is now covered by the two Seabus ferries that operate on a 15-minute rotation  during the day and 30 minutes in the evening.  A high-speed rapid transit train, he estimates, could cross in a few minutes. He also suggests that one tunnel with one track (except at the ports where the track would be split) would work, as one would leave as another is arriving.

The existing bridges are not a solution to rapidly moving people.

"The Ironworkers and Lions Gate bridges combined have only nine lanes of traffic," he said. They were built in 1939 and 1960.  Populations growth in the Lower Mainland is outstripping the bridge’s capacity. Building a new bridge — a third crossing — is also not the answer as they put more vehicles onto constricted highways and cause further congestion.

Mussatto said a rapid transit link via tunnel under the Burrard Inlet would not compromise the scheduling of the Broadway and the Surrey line extensions. The 2017 federal budget has allocated approximately $2.7 billion to B.C. rapid transit with $2.2 billion for TransLink’s Metro projects to extend lines. The Burrard Inlet tunnel would be built some time afterwards.

"But, we need to start looking to the longterm and visiting what is in the world of possibility and what is do-able. Is a tunnel going to cost us $5 billion or $1 billion? What kind of density do we need to sustain it? We need to start having these conversations and start thinking about it now," he said, as long range planning will impact how dollars are spent on infrastructure connect Vancouver’s North Shore communities to the rest of the Lower Mainland. "What are the good choices and the not so good choices?"

The North Vancouver mayor said he has met briefly with TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond, who was receptive to looking at the concept.  He said TransLink has promised to look at the feasibility of the idea this fall when staff has time.

Mussatto said the North Shore suffers from congestion on its highways from two conditions. The first is expensive house prices.

"You can’t buy a house here for under $1 million," he said, adding individuals who have grown up on the North Shore are buying elsewhere in the Lower Mainland or in areas such as Squamish and Whistler and then commute to the North Shore to work. The second condition leading to congestion is that people drive through the North Shore communities to reach recreational areas such as Whistler and the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal to the Sunshine Coast and Vancouver Island.

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