Finance Minister Paul Martin introduced his budget Monday in Ottawa, and in the process put a little more flesh on the bones of the 2010 Olympic bid.
There is still a dearth of information about what the bid will look like, but in the wake of the budget Martins comments, those of Environment Minister David Anderson and those of bid officials at last weeks fireside chat at least hinted at what the bid wont look like.
Martin announced a new $2 billion infrastructure program and specifically mentioned an expanded Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre and a rapid transit line between downtown Vancouver and the airport as "ideal projects for the fund."
The feds did not mention anything about doubling the capacity of Highway 99 or building a high-speed rail line between Vancouver and Whistler which is good. One of the fears Whistlerites have about the Olympics is the change the Games could bring to the valley and our carefully laid out plans and principles. A four-lane highway between Vancouver and Whistler would run contrary to those principles.
However, bid CEO Jack Poole also made it clear this week that improvements to the highway have to be made if the bid is to go ahead. He talked about passing lanes and possibly a third lane for the section between Squamish and Whistler.
Doubling the size of Highway 99 was never anyones preferred solution to the "Achilles heal" of the Vancouver Whistler Olympic bid. At a fireside chat last week bid officials talked about using buses to get people between Vancouver and Whistler, as well as around Whistler and to the Callaghan Valley, during the Olympics. Bus rides within Whistler would be free. Everyone coming from Vancouver to events in Whistler or the Callaghan would have their event ticket linked to a seat on a bus.
But the Olympic bid is at least as much about Vancouver and getting Vancouver infrastructure projects built as it is about Whistler, even though many people dont seem to realize that. A letter to the editor of the Vancouver Sun this week illustrated that point. "Spending money on the Vancouver-Whistler bid will leave an expensive legacy for those who can afford travelling to Whistler," Michel Gendron wrote. "And who can afford it once theyre there? Whistler is beautiful, but not within the reach of that many children, adults, seniors and families. It is an expensive playpark for a few, and I dont agree with tax dollars benefitting so few."
The writer makes several assumptions that could be challenged and does not recognize that Whistler currently contributes an estimated $2 billion annually to the provincial economy, and presumably would contribute more if awareness of the resort increased through hosting the Games. But more fundamentally, the Olympic bid and taxpayer money for infrastructure programs which would support the Games is concentrated in Vancouver.
The Olympic bid originated in Vancouver, with Tourism Vancouver, the Vancouver Board of Trade and business people in the city who have been pushing for an expanded trade and convention centre for years. The Lower Mainland is also in desperate need of an overall transportation plan, and a direct link between the airport and downtown is one part of that plan.
There have been hints that federal money might be available for the proposed $22 million renovation of Whistlers conference centre, but that pales in comparison to the $495 million projected cost of the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre expansion. Federal and provincial governments are being asked to cover $400 million of that total.
It should also be noted that a new Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre would have spin-off benefits for Whistler and the rest of the province.
The above are infrastructure projects that have been contemplated for years, regardless of the 2010 bid. Bringing them to reality fits the long-term needs of Whistler, the Lower Mainland and the province.
If the Olympic bid is successful it would mean development of specific sports facilities, including a Nordic centre in the Callaghan Valley. The ballpark price tag for that facility alone is $100 million. The price tag and long-term value of some of the sport facilities is open to debate, but the infrastructure program is needed regardless of whether the bid is successful or not.