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Can B.C. infrastructure keep up with population growth?

High immigration targets mean infrastructure must service existing residents while adding capacity for newcomers
Construction underway along the Broadway corridor for the expansion of the SkyTrain's Millennium Line | Rob Kruyt, BIV

Infrastructure providers are grappling with getting projects off the ground as quickly and smoothly as possible to stay on pace with population growth in Metro Vancouver.  

B.C.’s population reached 5,399,118 in the first quarter of 2023 – a 2.7 per cent increase compared with the first quarter of 2022, according to Statistics Canada.

Meanwhile, Ottawa has said it hopes to welcome 485,000 newcomers in 2024 and 500,000 in 2025 across all of Canada.

Projects like the Massey Tunnel replacement and additions to SkyTrain lines across Metro Vancouver are meant to meet growing demand as the population expands quickly. 

“You're sort of triaging … what we’re doing now, but we're also in a growth phase in our province,” Ray LeBlond, marketing director at architecture and construction management company Stantec Inc. (TSX:STN), said at a June 8 panel at the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade (GVBOT).  

“It's about how we have the infrastructure that's not only going to support what we need today, but what we're going to need in the future.” 

Executives from infrastructure providers like BC Hydro, TransLink, Vancouver Fraser Port Authority and B.C.’s Transportation Investment Corporation (TI Corp.) also shared updates at the GVBOT on how their organizations are working to increase capacity. 

The Broadway Subway project and other transit upgrades 

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

The tunnelling is roughly 30-40 per cent complete, said James Harvey, TI Corp.’s general counsel and vice-president of infrastructure. 

“We will for the first time in history have two SkyTrain projects underway at the same time and the combined extension of the SkyTrain is roughly 27 per cent of the track across the system with these two new projects,” Harvey said, referencing the Broadway project and the Surrey-Langley extension of the SkyTrain.  

The Surrey-Langley project is the first expansion of the SkyTrain south of the Fraser in more than 30 years. 

The project is in its procurement stage and has three requests for proposal in the market, according to Harvey.   

“Total value is about $4 billion, but one of the issues in the current market is the ability to sell a project of that size and risk into the market in one big chunk. So that contract has been broken down into three distinct components for the guideway, the stations, and the systems and track work that's needed,” he said. 

TI Corp. has $13 billion of infrastructure projects currently underway in the region, according to Harvey.  

One model that the Broadway Subway project is utilizing is working alongside private developers to co-create SkyTrain stops and transit-oriented development, according to developer Tim Grant, president of PCI Developments. His company has been working on station upgrades. 

Of the six new stations, two will have construction integrated with private development: Granville Station and Great Northern Way-Emily Carr Station.  

“I think there's some real benefits to that project delivery model, it certainly makes for better transit-oriented development … In terms of budget, there are cost savings with the private developer taking on some of the transit infrastructure. And secondly, schedule. It's offloading some risk from that very, very large project onto a private component that has some pretty stringent deadlines to meet.” 

The new line is scheduled to open in 2026.

Massey Tunnel Replacement 

The Highway 99 Tunnel project, which is set to deliver a replacement for the aging George Massey Tunnel, is on the “cusp of its procurement,” according to Harvey.  

After much debate over whether the tunnel will be converted into a bridge, the result will be a toll-free, eight-lane immersed tube tunnel. 

“It’s a hugely, hugely complex project. Immersed tube tunnel – ITT – construction is a unique art. There are a number of projects across the world that are underway right now that are ITT projects. Ours is about a kilometre in length and will accommodate both road traffic as well as dedicated transit,” he said. 

The hope is that the tunnel will accommodate current modes of active transportation and future developments in e-mobility vehicles.  

It is scheduled for completion in 2030. 

A key component of the tunnel replacement is the Steveston Interchange project. This will accommodate two eastbound lanes and three westbound lanes that will replace the existing two-lane overpass structure at Steveston Highway and Highway 99, according to Infrastructure BC.

The new interchange is currently under construction. 

Port of Vancouver additions  

As the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority (VFPA) deals with land constraints and labour issues, it has set its sights on the Port of Vancouver becoming the most sustainable port in the world, said Devan Fitch, program director for the VFPA’s Roberts Bank Terminal 2 (RBT2) project.

Notable and recent projects include expanding the container terminal by roughly 15 per cent. This achieved a 60 per cent increase in throughput capacity through strategic investments in infrastructure and operational changes, according to Fitch.  

Another example is the RBT2 project. This will involve the construction of a new three-berth marine container terminal in Delta. 

The project will increase capacity for container trade on the West Coast by about one-third once it is completed in the early-to-mid-2030s, Fitch said.  

“We have the support of about 26 Indigenous groups who have entered into mutual benefit agreements with the port authority, which means that they've helped shape the project and how it will be delivered. They'll also have an opportunity to participate in the economic opportunities related to its delivery,” he said.  

From an environmental standpoint, the project has committed to building 86 hectares of functioning fish and wildlife habitat.  

From an economic perspective, it's estimated to create between 17,000 and 18,000 jobs during construction and in operation, with most of those within the Lower Mainland. It will also contribute roughly $3 billion to Canadian gross domestic product and pay approximately $500 million or more in taxes to various levels of government.

“It's very much a project that will benefit this region and the whole of Canada,” Fitch said.

“Your phone probably came in a container from markets overseas. And the reason why you're able to pay a decent price for that is because we have efficient supply chains and we need to build more capacity to make sure we can do that in this high inflationary environment.”  

Despite the advantages advertised by the port authority, there has been controversy surrounding the project with critics saying it will have adverse environmental impacts and eliminate thousands of high-paying port jobs. 

First Nations, union and environmental groups gathered on June 14 to protest the project at Crab Park. The rally was endorsed by 14 various stakeholder groups. 

—With a file from Timothy Renshaw 

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