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Plans for New Bridge Show It Pays to Live in Premier's Riding: NDP

'How many perks is Kelowna going to get?' transport critic asks.

By Andrew MacLeod 26 Apr 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

Less than six years after opening a new bridge across Okanagan Lake, the British Columbia government is spending $2 million to begin planning another crossing.

Not long ago ruled out, the proposal was given new life by Premier Christy Clark when she was running in last year's byelection in Westside-Kelowna. While the starting commitment is already in the millions of dollars, building the bridge would cost B.C. taxpayers hundreds of times that amount.

"To me, it's $2 million on an election promise," said Claire Trevena, the New Democratic Party's transportation critic. "How many perks is Kelowna going to get?"

It was May 2008 when then-premier Gordon Campbell and then-transportation minister Kevin Falcon opened the SNC Lavalin-built William R. Bennett Bridge, with the bridge's namesake former premier the guest of honour at the $140,000 ribbon-cutting celebration.

Bennett said at the time the government should immediately get started on the next crossing, but it was an idea Falcon strongly opposed, for several reasons.

"Looking out 10, 20 years, the one biggest shift that I think the area should be aware of is we do face some challenges in terms of global warming and climate change," he said at the time. There needs to be more focus on cycling and transit, he said.

The future would require a change of transportation philosophy in car-centric Kelowna, Falcon suggested.

"We think we need to see a change in the urban form," he said. "We need to see more density. We need to see more opportunities for more high-rises, because that is much friendlier in terms of environmental and greenhouse gas output."

A denser city would be much easier to service with public transit, he said. "That, I think, is something that is going to be a pretty significant shift as we go forward."

Campaign commitment

Since Falcon made those remarks, a few things have changed. Campbell resigned as premier, and Clark defeated Falcon in the leadership race to replace him.

Clark then lost her seat in Vancouver-Point Grey in the May 2013 general election, despite her party's come-from-behind victory over the NDP. Ben Stewart quit as the MLA for Westside-Kelowna, making space for Clark to run in a byelection.

Stewart subsequently received a $150,000-a-year plus expenses appointment to be B.C.'s trade and investment commissioner based in Beijing.

It was during her campaign to replace Stewart, which she won, that Clark said it was time to start planning a second crossing.

At the end of March, Clark's transportation minister Todd Stone responded to questions from the NDP's Trevena during debate of his ministry's budget by acknowledging that $2 million over three years had been pegged for planning another Okanagan Lake bridge.

"This is going to be a significant project," said Stone, according to transcripts from the legislature. "There's no question about that. Our staff are in the very early stages of beginning the planning process... phase one will be all about stakeholder and community engagement to discuss the need and different options."

NDP: Why so soon?

Trevena questioned the decision. "There has been a new bridge opened over Lake Okanagan very recently," she said during the debate. "Why is there such a need to have a second crossing quite so soon? I mean, what went wrong with the planning last time that you need to have a second one?"

Stone recognized it's been only five years since the Bennett bridge opened. "At the time, it was believed that it would provide capacity for a 20 to 25-year period," he said. "What we are seeing in Kelowna, and certainly throughout the Okanagan Valley, is tremendous population growth and traffic volumes, which are demonstrating through our analysis that additional capacity is going to be required sooner than later."

He emphasized that the planning process is in its "very early, early, early" stages, but said a second bridge will be needed -- it's just a matter of when.

The $2-million commitment was noted in stories on the websites of the Kelowna Capital News, Kelowna Now and the Kelowna Daily Courier.

The promise got little attention in provincial media, but Global B.C.'s chief political reporter described it in a column for Burnaby Now as part of a pattern of priorities shifting outside the Lower Mainland to areas where the BC Liberals have enjoyed greater political success.

Trevena said there has been some population growth in Kelowna, but not enough to justify building another bridge so soon. There are many needs for better highways and improved transportation throughout the province, not just in the premier's constituency, she said.

The existing Bennett bridge, built by engineering firm SNC Lavalin under a public-private partnership, cost $144.5 million to build, according to Partnerships B.C. A Lavalin company has a 30-year contract to maintain the bridge.  [Tyee]

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