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The drive to a fixed link for the Sunshine Coast

September 20, 2015


Two days ago (September 18), the British Columbia government announced that it will study the costs and benefits of a possible highway link between the Sunshine Coast and Metro Vancouver.

Given that the long term benefits of such a fixed link have apparently been obvious to reasonable people for some time and the technology and engineering know-how have definitely been available for over 50 years, I would suggest that any decision to do it now will ultimately hinge on the amount of political will available to front the billion dollar-plus cost of the mega project.

The study is not an empty exercise though. There are important questions that the B.C. government needs to answer, including:

  • Have advances in engineering and materials science driven down the huge cost of such a project?
  • How much would a fixed link increase traffic over and above what the current ferry handles?
  • How would such a link impact regional development, i.e., would it remove pressure from the ALR?
  • And what would the total savings be of operating one less ferry?

Most of the questions are interrelated, like functions in an equation but ultimately they boil down to whether the project can pay for itself.

The cost of building a fixed link is probably in the billion dollar range but, right off the bat, losing a ferry route would save the B.C. government (aka, taxpayers) potentially hundreds of millions of future costs.

Unfortunately, some of those savings would be in cuts to the B.C. Ferries’ workforce, meaning that quite a few British Columbians would lose long-term, well-paying jobs — jobs that allow them to live decent lives and raise families in relative financial security.

By contrast, the fixed link would only directly create a short term boom in construction jobs.

Engineering know-how and technology isn’t the problem

Proposed floating bridge tunnel to span Sognefjorden, Norway.

Floating bridge-tunnel proposed by Sapa to span Sognefjorden, Norway.

There are several 20 kilometre-plus-long bridges in the world that are high enough to allow large ship traffic and even a few trans-oceanic bridges in China that exceed 30 km over water, so an elevated fixed link following the current Horseshoe Bay/Langdale ferry route of 10.5 nautical miles, or 19.446 km is now technically feasible.

But suitable bridge-tunnels, allowing the unhindered passage of very large ocean-going vessels have been in operation since the 1960s.


The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (CBBT) — to take a very famous example — is a two- to four-lane span, 28.32 km shore-to-shore, which was built in 42 months at a cost of USD$200 million and opened April 15, 1964 — on budget, on time and entirely financed with toll revenue bonds, rather than tax dollars.

A major determining factor in favour of choosing the bridge-tunnel combination for Chesapeake Bay were the concerns that any failure of a high bridge would impede transit of a significant portion of the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic fleet based nearby at Norfolk Navy Base and Sewell’s Point.

The long and the short of a Howe Sound fixed link

The shorter Anvil Island route and the existing longer ferry route.

The shorter Anvil Island route and the existing longer ferry route.

A much shorter way to bridge Howe Sound is located about 12 km north of the present ferry route where nature has conveniently placed Anvil Island between the banks of the Sound.

The Anvil Island route would require something over 40 km-worth of new road construction or upgrades, traveling between the present ferry terminals. But it would only require two comparatively short bridges, totaling about 9.8 km, to join each shore to Anvil Island.

So if technical considerations do not appear to stand in the way of a such a project, what about the social benefits and  the cost?

The environment seems to be a clear winner

A 2009 look at ferries and pollution found that a B.C. ferry (specifically the Queen of Surrey) burned about the same number of litres of fuel (1300) on the one-way trip between Langdale and Horseshoe Bay as its maximum capacity of 362 vehicles would burn if they all traveled 40 km — comparable to the distance involved in an Anvil Island crossing.

However, as of 2009, the Sunshine Coast ferry was apparently running at about 44 percent capacity and thus burning twice the fuel per trip as the average 161 vehicle it carried would burn on the Anvil Island route.

And all other things being equal, marine engines, which are made to use low quality, high sulphur-content petroleum, are much more polluting that automobile engines.

As the author of the paper on ferries and pollution (a fixed link advocate) wrote:

“By implementing a fixed link we conserve over 4.5 million liters [sic] of fuel each year (not counting fuel used at the terminals) and better still: we reduce carbon emission{s] and improve the health of the Planet”.

This author found several additional benefits beyond just fuel savings and pollution reduction, including:

  • Much less waiting around twiddling thumbs
  • Fewer large-scale ferry accidents (like, none at all!)
  • Emergency vehicles would have 24/7 access to the Lower Mainland
  • And a bridge would have lower maintenance costs than a ferrt

Oh, and the author believes that: “Bridges are…a delight to both residents and visitors”.

Against all the benefits, the author could find no downsides to a fixed link — none.

But I’m sure that the author is wrong about that — wrong, for instance, to suppose that bridges, unlike ferries rarely need to be replaced. One clear downside of a fixed link is the prohibitive cost of replacing and/or expanding its capacity.

Consider the rather impressive Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel mentioned earlier. The above-water portion of the CBBT is now four lanes, thanks to A $197 million expansion, completed in 1999. However, the tunnel portions still only accommodate two lanes and it has been estimated that upgrading the two tunnels would cost a billion dollars each. There will be a $15-per-trip toll on the CBBT forever, in all likelihood.

The province will cross that bridge when it can afford it

Any feasibility study conducted by the provincial government will ultimately comes down to a trio of interrelated factors:

What will it cost upfront to build such a fixed link across Howe Sound, how long will it take for tolls to recoup that cost and how much will the government save in the meantime by eliminating the ferry route?

The answer to that last question seems to be “quite a lot”.

Near as I can tell there were 2,985 round trips in 2014 on the Horseshoe Bay/Langdale route. That works out to something like $4,501,380-a-year for marine diesel, according to fuel usage cited for the Queen of Surrey.

So losing the ferry route would save over $90 million in 20 years, just in fuel costs alone along with untold millions in support and maintenance and “several hundred million” more if it means that one less new ferry ever has to be purchased.

As for the cost of building a fixed link, anyone’s guess is as good as mine. All I can do is looking again to the CBBT for a clue — its cost of USD$200 million in 1964, adjusted for inflation could equal something like $1.5 billion in 2015 funds.

So what do we get if divide that big number by the existing traffic paying the CBBT’s $15 toll?

B.C. Ferries traffic statistics are available in tabular form and shows the total 2014 vehicle traffic for the Horseshoe Bay and Langdale terminals as 533,699 and 538,665, respectively.

Rightly or wrongly I lump these two figures together for a total traffic along the route of 1,072,364 vehicles, averaging out to 2938 vehicles per day.

A $15 toll equals $44,070-a-day, or a tad over $16 million a year — which would clear the cost of construction in…937 and-a-half years!

A fixed link to the Sunshine Coast may cost less than $1.5 billion but not that much less. So I think that, at the very least, the government will need to show that a fixed link will more than quadruple vehicle traffic and I think that I’d better leave the rest of the figuring to the experts! Click the images to enlarge them.

From → Lower Mainland

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