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Can infrastructure keep pace with immigration?

Population growth, electrification create need for investment in Metro Vancouver
Projects like the Capilano Substation will increase capacity for North Vancouver residents, according to BC Hydro | BC Hydro

When looking at infrastructure developments throughout Metro Vancouver, much of the drive to update and build public resources is based on increasing demand for those resources due to immigration.

At the intersection of infrastructure and population growth are a number of issues – including housing affordability, the sustainability of large infrastructure works, the cost of public infrastructure and the reality of navigating complex projects that fall under the purview of various levels of government.

Experts who spoke to Glacier Media said B.C. has the capacity to address increasing demand on key types of infrastructure. But the key, they say, will be keeping momentum as the province welcomes record levels of new immigrants in the coming years.

“Obviously, immigration is really important for British Columbia and Canada more generally to address the skills shortage across a variety of really important occupations, including skilled construction labour. But it requires us to do more, faster on the development of housing options,” said Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Rob Fleming in an interview with Glacier Media.

And infrastructure and housing go hand in hand, said George V. Harvie, mayor of the City of Delta and chair of the Metro Vancouver board of directors.

The province needs more skilled workers to build complex transportation, municipal and energy infrastructure projects, but it doesn’t have enough housing to accommodate them. However, infrastructure expansions won’t be needed as acutely if there isn’t enough housing to shelter the newcomers that are partially driving the demand for more infrastructure, explained Nemkumar Banthia, an engineering professor at the University of British Columbia and a Canada Research Chair.

“We have a small number of users for a great deal of investment already made in the infrastructure here. So clearly if you increase the population, you will start optimally using infrastructure, which is in some instances underused at the moment,” Banthia said.

British Columbia absorbs, on average, roughly 20 per cent of new full-time residents to Canada each year, according to MOSAIC, a non-profit settlement services organization. Last year, B.C. welcomed roughly 83,000 new immigrants.

Ottawa has said it hopes to welcome 485,000 newcomers in 2024 and 500,000 in 2025. If B.C. continues to absorb around 20 per cent of immigrants to the country, the province could be looking at 97,000 newcomers next year, and around 100,000 in 2025.

As the province prepares for an influx of immigration, Fleming said he believes the main focus for Metro Vancouver is investing in infrastructure that improves the transportation of goods and people.

One of the most highly anticipated infrastructure projects in the region is the 5.7-kilometre extension of the Millennium Line from VCC-Clark Station to West Broadway and Arbutus Street.

There is also the Surrey-Langley project, which is the first expansion of the SkyTrain south of the Fraser in more than 30 years. It is in its procurement stage and has three requests for proposals in the market.

This is the first time in the province’s history that there are two SkyTrain projects underway at the same time. Combined, the projects will extend SkyTrain track by roughly 27 per cent.

“Those present projects remain on budget and their stability is enhanced by having very solid partnerships between municipal governments and the federal government. The province is taking the lead on both of those projects, but we also are working most closely with TransLink, our regional transportation authority. So, partnership is key,” said Fleming.

Harvie identified water as a key concern when keeping pace with newcomers to Metro Vancouver. He said the current supply of water will not meet the demand of expected immigration numbers.

He also identities the need to upgrade sewage systems and treatment plants as an important step in building more capacity.

“Our biggest concern right now is that we cannot on these major projects get a confident end-number as to what the cost would be. And that’s because of trade shortages, supply chain problems, rising interest rates, all that is compounding and making this a very difficult thing for Metro Vancouver to go through. But we are,” said Harvie, adding that the region is relying on the provincial and federal governments for support.

Meanwhile, BC Hydro’s main concern is accommodating population growth and increasing demand for electrification.

“With interest accelerating, we are now forecasting that the need for new resources has moved up about three years,” said BC Hydro in a statement to Glacier Media, noting that the Crown corporation continues to see significant interest in electrification across residential, commercial, transportation and industrial sectors.

BC Hydro expects to need new renewable energy sources starting as early as 2028.

To prepare for this, they are advancing investments and integrating new technologies into the electricity system, in addition to expanding energy management programs and preparing for a call to acquire renewable electricity from new sources, according to the corporation.

By the project

As infrastructure providers work to keep up with B.C.’s growing population, the following list identifies new infrastructure projects, and upgrades to replace aging infrastructure, that are considered key to expanding B.C.’s capacity in a number of areas.

BC Hydro

New Capilano substation in North Vancouver: Grow capacity to serve more than 12,000 customers in North Vancouver.

Upgrading Sperling substation on Vancouver’s west side: Originally built in the 1940s, it currently serves more than 56,000 customers.

Replacement of the Dal Grauer Substation on Burrard Street: This will increase capacity to about 30,000 homes and businesses downtown. Early estimated completion is 2030.

Ministry of Infrastructure and Transportation

Massey Tunnel replacement: The project is in its request for qualification stage and will have identified by mid-September what company will take on the construction of the tunnel. 

The Pattullo Bridge replacement: The $1.377 billion project is roughly one year away from completion.

Metro Vancouver

Coquitlam water main project: The new water main will be 12 kilometers long and 3.2 meters in diameter along Pipeline

Road. The project was estimated to cost $97 million but will require an additional $22 million.

Northwest Langley Wastewater Treatment Plant Expansion: The expansion will increase capacity from the 30,000 people it currently serves to over 280,000 people after completion in 2030.

Iona Island Wastewater Treatment Plant Projects: In addition to plant upgrades the projects include ecological restoration projects. The plant currently serves approximately 750,000 residents.

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