RDN Director pushes MOTI to study impacts of fixed link

Derek Kilbourn

Sounder News

Tuesday, March 3 2015

Representatives from the Regional District of Nanaimo (RDN) met with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) staff recently to discuss the RDN Board’s request for a socio-economic study on the impact of a bridge between Gabriola and Vancouver Island.

Howard Houle, RDN Director for Area B (Gabriola, Mudge and DeCourcy Islands) had made the motion at the Board level, wanting MOTI to examine what impact a fixed link would have on Gabriola, Mudge and downtown Nanaimo.

Representing MOTI were Renée Mounteney, Deputy Director for MOTI (South Coast Region), and Johnathan Tillie, MOTI Operations Manager for Gabriola and Central Vancouver Island.

From the RDN there was Houle along with Alec McPherson, Director, Electoral Area A (South Wellington, Cassidy, Cedar) and Maureen Young, Director for Area C (Extension, East Wellington, Pleasant Valley). RDN Managers Tom Osborne and Geoff Garbutt were also at the table.

Houle said one of the first things talked about was the fact that MOTI left out the local governments when it came to setting up the feasibility study for the fixed link.

“We thought there should be a more collaborative approach to include local governments,” said Houle.

“By leaving us out, there are issues.” He said the MOTI staff agreed with that.

When it came to factors that should be considered in a socio-economic study, Houle said they talked about needing to look at what the demographic and growth patterns are for Gabriola, and what they might look like going into the future.

“What would the population be like? What would it change to? Younger people? Not as many retired? [MOTI] were writing like crazy when I talked.”

The RDN representatives also brought up the fact that the Greater Nanaimo transportation plan has been focused on a new exchange terminal going in close to where the Gabriola ferry currently docks. Within that same area is where the proposed pedestrian ferry to Vancouver will be docking.

Houle said, “We pointed out that it seems counterproductive to send 4,000 people to the south end of Nanaimo without considering that.”

Having an RDN transportation representative at the table meant MOTI could hear of the savings being achieved by RDN Transit, specifically through the compressed natural gas (CNG) buses now operating in the system.

Put together, the 25 CNG buses being operated by the RDN are saving $300,000 in fuel costs and $200,000 in maintenance per year.

Houle said when talking about ferries, it was important to recognize that technology changes all the time - changes to the Quinsam would be enough to drive down costs that BC Ferries and the government are trying to achieve.

“We also had a conversation about things you can’t quantify - like island culture. Why people choose to live there, why they come to visit there. 

“One of the things is because it is remote. That has a certain mystique about it - people want to go to those places. There is also a perceived safety.”

He said other points brought up with MOTI were what the impact of a fixed link might be on real estate, and on the environment of Gabriola, “Particularly if you land the abutments at Brickyard, where you have some of the best oyster and clamming beaches around.” 

Other factors Houle would like to have considered are: “Will the RCMP detachment stay open on Gabriola, or would RCMP service be provided out of Nanaimo? Will the school remain open? What would travelling times for elementary kids to Cedar or to Nanaimo be?”

“Presently, if kids are going to Nanaimo for high school, they can participate [in activities] and then go home on the ferry. A bridge will restrict after-school activities.”

He said they also discussed potential impacts on downtown Nanaimo businesses, and the access Gabriolans currently have to downtown cultural activities (such as walk-on access to the various festivals at Mafeo Sutton Park and the Port Theatre).

“There will be a huge impact on Nanaimo businesses.”

Traffic patterns on Gabriola would also shift, likely to South Road, as more vehicles have to head to wherever the fixed link lands on the island.

At the end of the meeting Houle asked whether a fixed link to Gabriola was a prelude to the construction of a major ferry route terminal on Gabriola or Valdes.

“They said no, not at all. Apparently when they did the study in the 80s, MOTI determined Duke Point was the place to be, so that is no longer on the table.”

Deputy Director Mounteney was contacted by email for comment on the meeting.

Sonia Lowe, Public Affairs Officer with MOTI, responded by email stating, “The Ministry and its consultant met with local government officials over the last couple of weeks to reiterate the purpose of the study, which is to provide the Ministry with a technical analysis of the feasibility of a fixed link along with estimated costs.

“Before the Ministry commits to future work, we have to wait for the results of the feasibility study and determine what further steps need to be taken, if any.”

According to previous statements from MOTI earlier this year, the feasibility study is expected to have been completed by the end of February and turned in to Ministry staff, but results will not be made public until this summer. Critics of the feasibility study have pointed out that releasing the study publicly during the summer means the legislature will have shut down after the spring session, so there will not be an opportunity for the study to be debated or questioned by MLAs. There have been two fall sittings (2011 and 2014) of the Legislature since Christy Clark became premier.