Residents on Saturday got their first chance to provide feedback on a plan to replace the George Massey Tunnel.
A large crowd was on hand at an open house at the Delta Town and Country Inn organized by the provincial government, marking the beginning of consultations.
In September, Premier Christy Clark announced several road projects, including starting the process to replace the 53-year-old underwater crossing.
The open house and presentation in Ladner was part of the preliminary phase, aimed at understanding various needs and potential project constraints, as well as gathering feedback on potential crossing design elements.
The next phase of consultation, to start early next year, will focus more closely on evaluating the crossing options. The possibilities that have been mentioned, so far, range from refurbishing and expanding the existing tunnel to building a new bridge.
Project director Geoff Freer told the Delta Optimist this early phase is to find out when and why commuters use the tunnel and what they think should be considered. A number of ideas have already been submitted for what the new structure should look like and where it should be located, he said.
Freer noted an interesting finding is that 55 per cent of the traffic through the tunnel northbound is Richmond-bound, while southbound traffic in the afternoon has more than 60 per cent from Richmond.
Delta Farmers' Institute president John Savage said the farming community is in favour of maintaining the existing crossing and adding a new structure or two that could run over top.
"What we're saying is you've got a 200-foot right-of-way, there's no reason why you can't add a couple of lanes on each side and make it an eight-lane freeway if you wanted," he said.
The Steveston overpass on the Richmond side would have to be replaced with an interchange, he added
"We prefer straddling the tunnel, Leave the tunnel there, but the problem is Deltaport wants deeper boats going down the river," said Savage.
MLA Vicki Huntington said it seems to make sense to utilize the existing corridor.
"It make a lot of sense when you look at the agricultural land that would be impacted on the Richmond side. If you believe in agricultural land, you'll want to preserve as much as possible. Or, you can look at another opportunity to sever it, which is not good for the farming community," she said.
During the question and answer period, Freer noted that while the title of the project says it's a replacement, that doesn't necessarily mean the tunnel will be scrapped.
When asked what can be done to alleviate congestion now, Freer responded that the options are limited. He said although it's an option, he doesn't see trucks being removed during the rush hour periods.
The audience also raised the need for better transit including light rapid transit.
The province notes that more than 80,000 vehicles use the tunnel daily. Rush hour demand exceeds capacity, and midday demand has grown to near capacity.
Morning rush hour lineups can extend as much as 1.5 to five kilometres long.
Delta engineering director Steven Lan recently told city council he was surprised by some of the negative commentary from the public regarding a tunnel replacement.
He noted that the only crossings that have more volume per lane are the Port Mann and Knight Street bridges.
The Ministry of Transportation notes some of the key design considerations for the replacement project include cost, agricultural lands, jobs and economic growth, congestion reduction, support for transportation alternatives and alignment with community, regional and national objectives.
The ministry also notes cars use the tunnel most (77 per cent), followed by HOV users (10 per cent), heavy trucks (nine per cent), light trucks (three per cent) and transit (one per cent).
Although consultations have begun and a sign has already been erected in South Delta proclaiming replacement for the tunnel is coming, a new structure could be a decade or more from reality.
In the meantime, the new South Fraser Perimeter Road is anticipated to help ease some of the traffic through the tunnel.
The first stretch of SFPR, officially named Highway 17, opened on the weekend. It's a 10-kilometre eastern section that connects to the Port Mann Bridge. The second and final phase, a stretch from 136th Street in Surrey to Deltaport Way, is to be finished by December 2013. It remains to be seen what role the new highway could play in determining the location and form of a new crossing in South Delta.
For more information about the tunnel replacement project, the ministry has a new website at www.engage.gov.bc.ca/masseytunnel/consultation.