The District of West Vancouver suffered a serious setback last week in its fight for a tunnel, rather than the overland route, as part of the Highway 99 upgrade.
A federal judge dismissed West Vancouvers application to overturn a federal environmental screening decision that would give the province authority to make environmental decisions regarding the Sea to Sky Highway Improvement Project while construction was underway.
The District of West Vancouver, City of North Vancouver, District of North Vancouver, Greater Vancouver Regional District, Green Party of B.C., Burns Bog Conservation Society, and Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment are among the organizations that have formed a coalition to oppose plans to build a 2.4 kilometre four-lane highway through the Eagleridge Bluffs area in West Vancouver. The area includes the Larson Creek Wetlands, a section of the Baden Powell Trail, and is located near a residential neighbourhood that is concerned with the impact of increased traffic on their community. In addition, a development with over 1,200 houses and a golf course is also planned for the area and will be impacted by the highway.
Instead, the coalition is in favour of building a 1.4 km, four-lane divided tunnel.
The final decision for the controversial section was made over a year ago, after the public consultation period wrapped up. Cost was the deciding factor.
The estimated cost for the overland route is about $130 million, verses $200 million for a four-lane tunnel. Tunnel proponents are disputing both the projected construction costs and maintenance costs for the two options.
Rather than allow the province to go ahead with construction, West Vancouver filed a legal challenge in July of 2004 against the federal governments approval, believing that the environmental impacts were not fully evaluated in federal assessments.
A federal judge dismissed the challenge last week, maintaining that the federal ministries involved in the project would provide adequate environmental safeguards and would challenge the province when environmental issues arise.
"We have reviewed the judges decision and are obviously disappointed," said West Vancouver Mayor Ron Wood. "Based on a very preliminary review, it appears that the judge has recognized our concerns, but feels that the Federal Ministries responsible for providing oversight on the project will have sufficient authority to deny permits if our environmental concerns can not be addressed.
"The District of West Vancouver will continue to be diligent and persistent in ensuring that our concerns about environmental impacts are addressed as the project progresses. I will be reviewing the decision further with Council and our solicitors to determine if further legal action is appropriate."
Tunnel proponents believe the $130 million price tag for the overland route is low because it doesnt anticipate costs for expropriating the land or any cost savings realized by the fact a tunnel is about a kilometre shorter.
Complicating matters, the four-lane tunnel option was never officially considered. The four options presented were:
Option A adding two new northbound lanes upslope of the existing highway
Option B building four new lanes upslope
Option C building a two lane northbound tunnel
Option D Building a two lane, two-way tunnel
Option B was the preferred option of stakeholders and the public after a series of meetings and hearings held last year.
Dennis Perry, the Green Party candidate for the West Vancouver-Garibaldi riding, reacted strongly to the judges ruling.
"Its a judges job to ensure the law is followed and, in this case, the judge ruled that the ministries have the right to perform assessments as construction proceeds," said Perry. "I believe that the destruction of the bluffs and the Larson wetlands is a crime, or should be. This ruling simply means the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act is weak, not that the case for the overland route is strong."
Ernie Corlett, the head of the Coalition to Save Eagleridge Bluffs, was also disappointed.
"The idea that the federal government has the authority to perform environmental reviews during the design phase of a major construction project, and not prior to it, when the route runs through a rare eocsystem, says something about how we as a society value our environment.
"If, halfway through the design of the overland route, it is determined that the wetlands and bluffs are indeed environmentally threatened and no mitigation can be successful, what can the province do? By then it may be too late."
The Ministry of Transportation and provincial government has yet to sign a commercial agreement or budget agreement with the consortium of companies that was selected for the $600 million upgrade to the Sea to Sky highway. Those contracts should be finalized in the next few weeks.