Why no bridge?

A bridge for Gabriola offers certain benefits for the community, but also has the potential to introduce problems or cause damage to the community. People’s attitudes toward a bridge will depend on what effects they believe a bridge will have on the island and the relative values they put on those effects. Many good people on Gabriola support a bridge; we don’t. This page outlines some of our reasoning. It will almost certainly be updated and added to over time, so consider revisiting it.

THIS IS AN ISLAND, DAMMIT.

A community is not simply a place where people live together. Communities develop slowly, over time. They consist of an environment and the people and animals who are in it, and the interconnections between all of them. A community is a sociological construct that includes patterns of interaction and behaviour. People within a community share many values, beliefs, expectations and understood meanings. This doesn’t mean that everyone thinks the same way, just that there are a significant number of commonalities in what we find meaningful and how we approach the world.

Communities adapt to the particularities of their environment and context. A small town functions differently than a city. A town in a farming community functions differently than a town in a resource-extraction based community. A town with a particular history or ethnic background will function differently than one with a different background.

And this is one of the reasons we react so strongly against the proposal of a bridge. An island community is quite different from a mainland community; our experience is informed by the particularities and peculiarities of our environment. A small island community’s culture is NOT the same as the culture in Surrey, or even Cedar. There will be overlap, but they are not identical.

The cultural differences of small places are recognized by the larger culture, sometimes approvingly, sometimes with “tongue-in-cheek” condescension. But no matter what the approach is, the point is that the Gulf Islands do have distinct personalities, and that is recognized. Many people choose to live in them because they are islands. The individual differences between them are part of why people choose to live on specific islands; I’ve talked to many people who’ve moved to one or another island, after doing research on them, not just because of relative accessibility or services or other practical factors, but also because of the specific culture of the place. We think this is how people should decide where to live: choose a community that meets your needs and is compatible with your ideas, rather than trying to change a community to fit your requirements.

Many anti-bridge people see maintaining a physical separation as fundamental to retaining a distinct culture: “real islands don’t have bridges” summarizes this position nicely. But some pro-bridge arguments I’ve seen dismiss that position as elitist or selfish or based solely on emotions. It is not. It is an effort to retain and maintain a community that fosters specific interactions and values that are exercised every day in practical ways within the context of a slightly isolated environment.

Take a look at this quote from Wikipedia:

In Marxist philosophy, the term cultural hegemony describes the domination of a culturally diverse society by the ruling class, who manipulate the culture of that society — the beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values, and mores — so that their ruling-class worldview becomes the worldview that is imposed and accepted as the cultural norm; as the universally valid dominant ideology that justifies the social, political, and economic status quo as natural, inevitable, perpetual and beneficial for everyone, rather than as artificial social constructs that benefit only the ruling class.”

This. Arguing that it’s unfair or elitist or selfish for people to say that Gabriola should not have a bridge essentially insists that it’s wrong to try to keep Gabriola different and distinct from the culture of the larger community, and that strikes me as a pretty good example of striving for the imposition of cultural hegemony.

We at Gabriola Bridge disagree with that position. We believe that a province and a country do not have to be perfectly homogenous, and in fact we believe that a lack of homogeneity leads to a richer, more diverse experience. We believe that the Gulf Islands, both individually and collectively, have characteristics that should be valued and are worth preserving, and that a lack of bridges is a contributing factor to those characteristics. There is absolutely no reason why every community must share exactly the same values and approaches to the world. We think that healthy communities should be allowed to retain individuality (while collaborating with other communities—we are not isolationists) and define their own cultures. We think a small community should not be forced to conform to every expectation and requirement of larger communities (or governments), simply for their convenience.

Obviously some people on Gabriola have a very different position on this. If they are the majority, then their community values may prevail through democratic processes. Our point is that the structure of a community should not be externally imposed through non-democratic processes—such as by fiat of a government that does not take community views into consideration.

DIRECT IMPACTS OF A BRIDGE

Infrastructure impacts

What would building a bridge to Gabriola require, and what would the secondary impacts of that building be? We’re basing our questions on a statement in the Times Colonist of what was recommended by the Gabriola Bridge Society.

“The petition, circulated by the Gabriola Bridge Society, recommends two two-lane bridges, measuring a total of 150 to 180 metres. They would run between Gabriola Island and Mudge Island, and from Mudge Island to Joan Point in Nanaimo.” 

A map showing the proposed bridge location can be found here.

Based on this statement:

  • This proposal would run the road through Joan Point Park in Nanaimo, so presumably park land would need to be expropriated in order to run a road through it. What are the implications for Nanaimo?
  • Presumably roads on Mudge would need to be widened and improved. Would this involve expropriating land?
  • Where exactly would the bridge connect on the Gabriola side land? How would roads on Gabriola be impacted? Would they need to be widened and improved? Would entirely new roads have to be built? Would the crossing be at Brickyard Beach, or at the existing boatramp off El Verano, or…? What would the impacts be to those locations?

The choices made for developing infrastructure could have a significant impact. Will the community be consulted?

Access impacts

Will increased access to Gabriola affect the community significantly? We think there are likely to be both positive and negative effects.

Direct access to the downtown: right now it’s very easy to travel as a foot passenger in order to access downtown Nanaimo. This will change if a bridge is built and ferry service ends. We can see two possible solutions to this. One is that Nanaimo public transit runs to Gabriola; would it be economic to run it as often as the ferry currently runs? The other is that someone would set up a water taxi service, and of course someone is already trying to do that. But I’d be curious to know if fares for a water taxi would be as cheap as the discounts received by Experience Card users and seniors. In any case, if neither of these things happen, or if the pricing is more expensive and/or the timing of them is more inconvenient than current ferry service, new impediments to travel will have been introduced.

Shopping: on the positive side, local stores might have more customers if more people visit. But are people really likely to do much shopping on Gabriola? And if it’s easy to get to Nanaimo, where there are bigger and cheaper stores, will more people actually stop shopping on Gabe? If so, we will likely lose the commercial heart of our community, with its opportunities for supporting local businesses, and we truly will become only a bedroom community.

Mudge Island

And it’s not just Gabriola. What will happen to Mudge when suddenly there is road access? Is it fair to insist that an island which is not currently served by a ferry must be forced to accept a bridge and road because the government doesn’t want to run a ferry to Gabe? If you’re a Mudge resident opposed to a bridge, please consider adding your two cents to our “Your Comments” page.

Environmental impacts

Apparently the proposed bridge study will only consider technical/engineering feasibility; possible environmental impacts “will be discussion to have in due course.” But we live in a fragile environment that is already under many pressures. Environmental impacts should be part of any feasibility study right from the start.

On one hand, ferries use a lot of fuel, so there would be positive environmental benefits if they don’t run.

On the other hand, whatever means are used to travel to Nanaimo will still have an environmental impact; these include the full ecological footprints of:

  • Fuel and emissions for a water taxi, if one is implemented to support the needs of foot passengers travelling directly to downtown Nanaimo
  • Fuel and emissions from cars driving (Exactly how far would people be driving, anyway? If anyone has calculated this out, please let us know.)
  • Fuel and emissions from new public transport
  • Destruction of environment to build infrastructure
  • Fuel and emissions for ongoing support of that infrastructure

You’ll have to come up with some awfully detailed, comprehensive, professional and independently produced data on the relative environmental footprints of a bridge vs. ferry to convince me that building a bridge reduces environmental impacts rather than simply shifting them, and so far we haven’t seen that kind of data.

The cost of living on Gabriola

Everyone knows how hard it is for people to live on Gabriola and make a living, especially young families. Most have to work off island, with associated travel costs. A bridge is presented as a solution for this, but will it really solve the problem? Presumably many costs related to living here would simply shift rather than disappear; for example, people who now pay for travelling by ferry for work would still have travel-related expenses. It remains to be seen how the relative costs in money and time would balance out.

At the same time, the Nanaimo Daily News states that “Real estate values on Gabriola would undoubtedly rise, simply due to easier access.” But it doesn’t take a big leap of logic to assume that higher costs for real estate would force out lower-income people, who often are young families starting out in the world. Not everyone owns their homes, of course, but we already know that the shortage of rental housing is a problem, and if housing prices go up rentals likely will too. PHC has already pointed out that the income level of Gabriola residents “does not parallel the housing price increase.”

All of which is to say that a bridge is not a miracle cure for the problem of making a living wage while living on Gabriola.

24-hour emergency access to the hospital

Gabriola has a very high percentage of middle-aged and older residents. So quick access to emergency medical services is important to many people, which is why it gets mentioned by pro-bridge people every time a bridge is discussed.

We have excellent medical services on this island, with doctors providing 24-hour on-call service and an emergency room at the new clinic. We don’t have everything, though, which is why we sometimes need to go to Nanaimo for tests or treatment that cannot be provided on the island. If an emergency means that you need to access the hospital outside of times when the ferry runs—as has happened to me—it means inconvenience at the very least. It can also mean unaffordable expenses or problems with meeting responsibilities for things like childcare, elder care, or getting to work on time.

These are serious, real problems. At the same time, a 24/7 connection to the hospital is often not actually an issue of life and death. But it feels like it could be life and death, which gives this issue more weight than it otherwise might have. I think that citing it as a prime reason for a bridge is fundamentally an emotional argument that plays on people’s fears. Emotion-based arguments can be very effective at motivating people, and that this is exactly why it is used.

Personally, after thinking about the issue and trying to compensate for that emotional must-have-access-or-I’ll-die response, I’m not convinced that the trade-offs required in order to have 24-hour access to the hospital are worth it. I’m prepared to deal with the inconvenience and costs for as long as I can, and I assume that at some point, if my health requirements necessitate it, I will move off the island. I suspect a lot of people agree with this position.

Water and sewage

It has been suggested that water (and sewage?) lines could be run across a bridge, and that this would mitigate the issues with water that Gabriola suffers from. Certainly this would solve many problems.

But it would also mean that Gabriola could be potentially opened to a much, much higher density of land use. And wouldn’t that be a boon to developers?

Secondly, there is no study being proposed that includes water/sewage infrastructure additions to any bridge: this is a hypothetical built on a hypothetical. Saying yes to a bridge will not get you or me a line to the mains.

WHAT ELSE?

A political party develops policies based on particular political viewpoints; when elected, they do their best to put these policies into practice. So it doesn’t require a tinfoil hat to make someone ask what the larger goals are when a government expresses interest in a project such as a bridge to Gabriola. As the Sounder notes, an expensive project like this is unlikely to be done solely, if at all, for the benefit of a tiny community.

Current government policies and their implications

What do we know about the current government? As evidenced by what has been going on with stated policies and especially their application to BC Ferries, we know several things:

So the question is: what’s in it for the government if a bridge to Gabriola is built? The supposition is that it would save them money, but we should look further than that. What do their policy positions and activities implementing those policies imply about the motivations for building a bridge and how the actual implementation of a bridge would be carried out?

Saving money

Will a bridge actually save money? Or will it simply offload the costs to someone else?

Will it be a toll bridge, transferring the costs to Gabriola residents? Jeremy Baker, and presumably by extension the Gabriola Bridge Society, support this option: “This money could pay off the cost of the bridge system in about 20 years leaving an inexpensive transportation system that could be supported by tolls.” But how many years of a “reasonable” toll (and what is “reasonable,” anyway?) will it take to pay off a toll bridge when it’s primarily paid by a community of less than 5000 people, plus seasonal tourists?

At what point do the costs relating to a bridge (tolls, the gas for longer trips, the costs of taking your car or using public transit compared to being a walk-on passenger) end up being equal to or higher than ferry fares? At what point is this simply shifting the costs to the community?

When the building costs go up (as they have for recent bridge projects in Victoria) will the bridge actually be as cost effective as claimed? Infrastructure projects such as bridges seem to go over more often than not.  Occasionally a project will come in within budget but as a rule the original estimates turn out to be complete BS (think Olympics). If the building costs go up, we’ll be paying more than expected or we’ll be paying for a long, long time. Or both.

Who benefits financially from building a bridge?

Does Gabriola benefit? Much of Gabriola relies heavily on tourism. A simple two-lane bridge may not compromise this, and may in fact help struggling businesses by bringing more people here. On the other hand, if the bridge is a gateway to larger projects (see below for speculation), a structure that encourages drivers to bypass the community or destruction caused to the environment and character of the community by careless development could actually reduce its desirability as a tourism destination. Given previous history, we see no reason to assume that Gabriola’s interests would be meaningfully considered in the process of developing larger projects such as those described below.

As mentioned earlier, provincial government policy is to get things done by Public-Private Partnerships (P3s). Private companies who build infrastructure will expect to profit by that work. If they don’t, they won’t get involved.

If a bridge is built, investors on Vancouver Island may benefit: “If built, [in the proposed location] it also might provide some good news for beleaguered investors in the Cable Bay/Oceanview Golf Resort and Spa development to the southeast of Harmac. Oceanview remains in a state of flux due to its inability to obtain road access to the site, although negotiations are ongoing. Building a bridge would necessitate construction of a road to reach the bridge on the Vancouver Island side, one which would presumably start as a spur off the current Island Highway route that reaches the Duke Point ferry terminal.”

One last thought on who benefits financially. One only has to look at the “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska to see the potential for politicians using infrastructure projects for porkbarrelling to support political rather than community interests. (Ironically, this bridge was also proposed to replace a ferry.)

Where will our ferry terminal(s) end up?

There has been a fair amount of speculation on what will happen with the three ferry terminals in the area. Duke Point is not profitable but despite this the government seems committed to maintain it. There have been proposals in the past about moving the Gabe ferry to Duke Point and closing the Nanaimo-Gabriola terminal. And there have been proposals such as André Lemieux’s to close all three terminals and open a new one on Gabriola or Valdez. (Note that the linked article also discusses closing Tsawwassen and moving its terminal to Iona Island, shortening the route; selling the terminal to Kinder Morgan would then allow their oil pipeline to run to Tsawwassen rather than Vancouver Harbour—all kinds of implications in that.)

There would be a lot of potential financial advantages to the government if they made such changes. Decommissioning existing ferry terminals would free up some prime real estate in Nanaimo which could then presumably be sold for a whack of money, funding construction of a new terminal. It would streamline ferry transportation and reduce the travel time between Tsawwassen and Nanaimo.

Another thing that could play into this is the fact that the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal requires major seismic upgrades. Because of the expense of doing so, the government has floated the idea of closing Horseshoe Bay and moving all traffic to the Tsawwassen ferry terminal to run to Duke Point.

Given all this, and the amount of major infrastructure that would be required to make a bridge to Gabriola, it’s not unreasonable to think that a bridge to Gabriola may only be part of the agenda. And yes, I know, a two lane bridge won’t support traffic to a major ferry terminal—unless, of course, it’s considered to be worth over-engineering it to have the capability to expand in the future if the government decides to pursue larger projects.

And what about that big bridge…

The outlier on all of this is the idea of running a fixed bridge between Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland. We actually doubt that this is likely as things currently stand, BUT the proposal has been taken seriously enough that it has been the subject of government studies, and proposed locations for the connection include Gabriola. The government’s conclusion? “The costs of a fixed-link construction project may not be affordable for the provincial government to undertake for many years to come. As technology advances, the ministry would be willing to look at any proposals the private sector brings forward.” Hey, there’s nothing like planning for the future.

What about the Islands Trust?

From the Islands Trust webpage: “In 1974, in recognition of the special nature of the islands in the southern Strait of Georgia and Howe Sound, the Government of British Columbia enacted the Islands Trust Act to protect this unique part of the world. … The reasons the province created the Islands Trust in 1974 are still valid today—’to preserve and protect the trust area and its unique amenities and environment for the benefit of residents of the trust area and of the province generally, in cooperation with municipalities, regional districts, improvement districts, other persons and organizations and the Government of British Columbia’. This mandate from the province underlies the work of the Islands Trust.

A critical part of the Trust’s mandate is “preserve and protect.” The Trust was originally created in response to the threat of uncontrolled development, recognizing that such development would destroy the very thing that people valued about the Gulf Islands. But because there are different rules under Trust governance, and because they are sometimes inconvenient for residents or outsiders to deal with, and may seriously limit what is allowed because they priorize protection over development, many people would like to end the Trust altogether.

The Islands Trust has an explicit position on bridges: “It is Trust Council’s policy that no island in the Trust Area should be connected to Vancouver Island, the mainland or another island by a bridge or tunnel, notwithstanding the existing bridge between North and South Pender Islands” (Islands Trust Council Policy Statement Bylaw, 1993, policy 5.3.2) This effectively prohibits building a bridge to Gabriola; the provincial government would therefore have to overrule lower levels of government in order to do so.

A recent article by Brenda Guiled of Saltspring Island about “The Islands Trust Experiment” reveals some interesting information about the pressures placed on it. A community such as Bowen Island, which incorporated as a municipality in 1999, “can appeal to the B.C. minister in charge of the Trust to override any of [the Trust’s] requirements.” Gabriola residents rejected incorporation in 2004, but as with bridges, there’s nothing to stop someone for pushing for it again.

Guiled writes that the provincial government is currently funding a local governance study for Saltspring. “If they fund the second part, it would lead to another referendum [on incorporating as a municipality], by 2018 at the latest.   …Were Salt Spring Island to become a municipality—and there’s a continual push for this by a local group called Islanders for Self-Government—35-40 per cent of Trust’s tax support would vanish, effectively gutting the Trust.”

Given this background, and the fact that it is so pro-development and prefers to devolve a great deal to the private sector, it seems reasonable to think that the current Liberal government would be more than happy to see the end of the Trust.

From our point of view, all this looks rather like what is sometimes called “creeping normality,” aka the Death By a Thousand Cuts, or Boiling a Frog, wherein “a major change can be accepted as the normal situation if it happens slowly, in unnoticed increments, when it would be regarded as objectionable if it took place in a single step or short period.”

So how does this relate to Gabriola? It’s another cut from that thousand. If you can reduce Gabriola’s individuality, if the beauty and character of the community and its surrounding islands and oceans are diminished, if you can make it just another bedroom community for Nanaimo, there are fewer reasons for it to be protected, because it no longer is distinct. Eventually it will seem to no longer make sense for it to be run under the auspices of the Trust.

Hell, if you go far enough it won’t make sense to have a Trust at all. Can you say, “end run”?

How does this fit in with the new provincial Transportation Plan?

We don’t know! but we’re going to read up on it, and if it seems relevant we’ll post something this section.

THE REAL ISSUE

How amazing that the idea of a bridge resurfaced just as the government is being so harshly critiqued for its management of BC Ferries! And this despite results from surveys as recent as 2009 showing a lack of local support for a bridge.

But this is a tried and true tactic, comprised of a number of elements:

  • Divert attention from the issue at hand (ferries) by proposing an unrelated solution (bridge)
  • Reduce existing services and use that reduction to convince people to accept options they would not otherwise choose (reduce ferry service to levels that are inadequate for people’s needs, offer a convenient bridge)
  • If possible, divide and conquer: create schisms within the community so that people waste their time fighting each other instead of you (pro- and anti-bridge factions)

The government has been critiqued for many things, including false assumptions in its management of ferries, its disregard to the concerns of coastal communities, and its lack of proper research before implementing policies. It’s response is to contemptuously double down on what it is doing and refuse to countenance any action contrary to what its political policies dictate. (Read opposition ferry critic Claire Trevena’s response here.)

There’s a really clear message in all of this: you’ll take what we give you, whether you like it or not.

We don’t accept that. We’re happy to spend space and time on this blog explaining why we think a bridge is a bad idea, but that doesn’t mean we’ll forget about the bigger picture. Let’s get back to the real issue here: working together to create a comprehensive provincial transportation system that includes BC Ferries, respects the contributions of coastal communities, and treats their needs on an equal footing with the rest of the province. The province may try to ignore the many criticisms of their policies and how those are implemented—relative power structures may enable them to ignore it—but that doesn’t mean we have to make it easy for them.

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