Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Dreams of bridging the islands with the mainland

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 6, 2008


Patrick McGeer is a research scientist. He approaches problems with an analytical mind.

Here's how he'd tackle an issue facing the province since colonial days.

Problem: The capital of British Columbia is located on the southeastern tip of an island. Most people live elsewhere.

“Imagine the capital of Western Europe being on Sicily,” he said.

Possible solution: Move the capital to the people.

Likelihood: Not.

Other possible solution: Let the people come to the capital.

The ferry is expensive and takes forever. Helicopters and float planes are even more costly. Plus, you can't bring your automobile, never mind a truckload of goods.

McGeer solution: Build a fixed link between the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. He says it is an idea whose time came a quarter-century ago.

“It's not a question of whether,” he insisted, “but of when.”

Back in 1980, when he was a cabinet minister in a Social Credit government, Mr. McGeer got some money to spend on the concept. He ordered a prefeasibility economic study and a preliminary environmental assessment.

He got a report from Parsons Brinckerhoff, the U.S. firm that built the first New York subway, and the tunnel between Detroit and Windsor, Ont.

What really excited him, however, was a report from the Victoria office of a Canadian engineering firm. For Mr. McGeer, it was the missing link.

Any proposal faced daunting challenges. The crossing could be 26 kilometres long; the water reaches a depth of 365 metres; the ocean bed is covered by what the government describes as “deep, soft sediments”; and the Strait of Georgia is pummelled by extreme waves, as well as harsh winds. The safe passage of marine traffic needs to be considered, as does the possibility of a collision between a tanker and any structure. Oh, and this all needs to be built in an earthquake zone.

A bored tunnel would not work. The water and soil are too deep.

A submerged floating tunnel would not work. Earthquakes and a marine accident would lead to “tunnel breaks,” which, in a word, would be catastrophic, although not a bad scenario for a disaster movie.

The proposal Mr. McGeer liked was prepared by Willis, Cunliffe, Tait & Co. Ltd. of Victoria.

It called for a floating bridge stretching from Richmond to the southern tip of Valdes Island in the Southern Gulf Islands. A highway would run the length of the island to a bridge linking to Gabriola Island. Another highway would cut across the south of the island to a span across False Narrows to Mudge Island, where another bridge would link to Vancouver Island at Nanaimo.

A desktop-sized model of the link was built and put on display in the B.C. pavilion at Expo 86.

Fairgoers oohed and aahed at the model.

When the fair ended, the company that built the model did not want to pay for storage. Mr. McGeer offered to keep it in the basement of his home in Vancouver's tony Point Grey neighbourhood.

It is there still.

“It was practical,” he said. “It was brilliant.”

The floating parts were links in a sausage. They could be built somewhere along the Fraser River and towed into place. One gets damaged, replace it easily with another.

Even now, he gets excited thinking about the possibilities.

The floating bridge could include a marina midway across the strait. Restaurants. Amenities. Not to mention the economic boom certain to follow from the easier flow of goods.

“It is so obvious that it should be done. And it will be done … as soon as we have a visionary politician in power.”

The problem, he said, is not the engineering difficulties. It is that bold thinking has been replaced by “Lilliputian thinking.”

For more than a century, bold thinkers have wanted to connect what Mother Nature neglected to bridge.

Back in 1872, only a year after the province joined Confederation, a railway was proposed to join Vancouver Island to the mainland. The railway was to cross Seymour Narrows at Menzies Bay before hopscotching across Quadra and Sonora Islands to run inland along Bute Inlet before connecting overland through the mountains to the rest of Canada. The plan was ambitious, not the least for the scheme of laying track alongside a fjord noted for its rough geographic features.

In the years since the idea of a floating bridge was first floated, the following feats of engineering have been completed: a 12.9-km bridge linking Prince Edward Island to North America; and a tunnel linking Britain to Europe.

These give Mr. McGeer hope.

He dismisses the likely protests of those “specialty people” who “invent objections” about the likes of “interrupt[ing] orcas” or some such.

He once wrote a political manifesto entitled Politics in Paradise, but he is not above a little blacktopping of Eden.

The likelihood of a bridge or tunnel plowing through the Gulf Islands seems remote. The Islands Trust council, responsible for protecting the 13 major and 450 minor islands off the mainland, long ago passed a policy barring the building of any bridge or tunnel between any island and the mainland; any island and Vancouver Island; any island to any other island. It did include a provision permitting the existing one-lane bridge between North and South Pender Islands.

Mr. McGeer was not the first cabinet minister to champion a crossing. Back in 1966, highways minister Flyin' Phil Gaglardi said his dream was to build a highway in a sunken tube stretching from Gabriola Island to Point Grey. He said it could be completed by 1990. It would have put a four-lane freeway close to Mr. McGeer's front door.

One other thing.

To Mr. McGeer, Georgia Strait is an unwelcome obstacle. To some of us on Vancouver Island, it is a blessed moat.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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