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Our ‘Sunshine Coast correspondent,’ John Whistler, continues his series on the massive road-and-bridge project proposed by the Province.
Do We Need a Sunshine Coast Fixed Link – 3
The BC Government public comment background material includes a Multiple Account Evaluation (MAE) which reviews a number of benefits and impacts associated with the various proposed fixed links to the Sunshine Coast.
The MAE includes high level rankings as to what is better or worse.  Because the status quo option to retain the existing ferry services is not included, readers need to manage this comparison on their own
Customer Service
The rankings for Travel Time Reliability are debateable. While continuous 24-hour access would be much better, the fixed-link road options are not offering a time savings (the bridge links would). All fixed-link options would be subject to service interruption or delay risks because of maintenance, weather, landslides and crashes, just as BC Ferries have service risks because of weather, mechanical issues and overloads.
(Are public transit and BC Ferries held to a higher standard than roads in the case of service interruptions or delays? We see this when a crash that closes the Lions Gate bridge barely rates mention in the news and a Skytrain interruption is front-page news.)
The rankings for Accessibility to Emergency Services are also curious. Any of the fixed-link options would require deploying new police and medical emergency services over 25, 50 or 200 km of new roads in regions that have no development at this time. The existing BC Ferry services include comprehensive emergency contingency plans and are closer to off-site emergency services.
The Sunshine Coast already has emergency hospital medical services in Powell River and Sechelt.  Any associated emergency medical transports would likely continue by helicopter, even with any of the road-link options. Indeed, some residents are concerned that a fixed link would facilitate closing one or both existing emergency services and consolidating them in North Vancouver’s Lions Gate Hospital.  Or is that one of the reasons for the better ranking?
The Emergency Evacuation criteria is interesting. One has to wonder what type of emergency would require a wholesale evacuation, other than a Fort McMurray type of wild fire. In this scenario the fixed link might be cut off or subject to gridlock because of congestion. The most resilient emergency evacuation method, covering many different evacuation scenarios, would be by ocean, as numerous docks already exist throughout the Sunshine Coast.
It would be interesting to quantify in more detail the safety implications and costs to society. Before the upgrade for the 2010 Olympics, HWY 99 was known as the “highway of death”. Since the upgrade, traffic collisions are now reduced to around 100 a year, with two fatalities. Though not perfect, BC Ferries have a much better safety record.
Economic Development
It sounds reasonable that property values would increase and construction would be encouraged by a fixed link. This might require an order-of-magnitude difference, such as doubling, to justify the costs of a fixed link. This benefit is a double-edged sword. Although housing costs on the Sunshine Coast are low by Vancouver standards, it is one of the attractive features for new residents, and affordability is already a significant issue and barrier for the existing population.
One existing economic development opportunity that would not need a fixed link is the need for care for the significant and growing seniors population.
The Socio-Community criteria are a mixed bag of factors that might subjectively be called “liveability”. Many existing residents like the slower paced “island lifestyle” as a result of the existing BC Ferries service.
Income equity is missing from this section. Would people of all incomes benefit from a fixed link or would this disproportionately benefit higher incomes or existing property owners?
Increased traffic volumes from a fixed link would be expected and explains the worse rankings to Effects on Population Supporting Infrastructure. This would impact roads on the Sunshine Coast, Metro Vancouver and Hwy 99, increasing pressure for additional road expansions. At a minimum, local-road maintenance costs would increase resulting in increased taxes or reductions in other local services.
Not surprisingly, the existing status-quo ferry service appears to be the favoured option from the environmental perspective. Indeed, using cost as a rough proxy, there could be significant environmental impacts from the fixed link options.
First Nations Considerations
Last but not least, the wild card – with discussions underway. No doubt these discussions will be difficult given the political climate and that this issue has been on-going since 1858, when the Colony of British Columbia was unilaterally declared. In particular, this will impact the ability to achieve the economic benefits from the natural resource development potential.