Quesnel Mayor Bob Simpson was both exhausted and elated when he sat down for an interview with the Quesnel Cariboo Observer at the Seniors’ Centre on Feb. 19.
It was 7:30 p.m. and Simpson had finished four-plus hours in front the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) poster board with a conceptual drawing of the proposed North-South Interconnector.
He answered questions, provided information and quashed a few public misconceptions.
Simpson was parched and tired, but all that went away when he learned more than 850 citizens walked through the doors to see what this Interconnector around Quesnel was all about.
“So to me, the 45- to 50-year debate about bypassing Quesnel is what I call the ‘entitlement mentality’. ‘We’re entitled to the Cadillac bypass’, but at today’s prices it’s probably anywhere from $600 million to $1 billion if you’re going to replace two existing bridges, add two more bridges, put in a big, long four-lane highway, etc.”
The mayor agrees the Interconnector proposal is a compromise for re-routing truck traffic from downtown, but he notes it’s an affordable project that can stack up against all the TransCanada Highway projects that are in the MOTI queue.
These include the Pattullo Bridge, Massey Tunnel replacement, the Island Highway project, the Malahat Highway project.
“That’s where we are. Every community in this province has a transportation ask, and where all the voters live, they have massive multi-billion-dollar projects.
“We have to live within the political reality where if we actually want to get trucks off Front Street and Carson Avenue, we have to find a project that meets our community needs of unloading that area of commercial truck traffic but that is also affordable to the province, and doesn’t involve another crossing over the Quesnel River and another rail bridge.”
This North-South Interconnector project does that, he says, adding the bridges have to be replaced anyway – with a cost between $150 million and $175 million.
It means the incremental ask of the province is around $100 million to $150 million, the mayor says, adding it’s a nominal project to resolve a bunch of issues and make that traffic flow better from a provincial perspective.
MOTI is all about flow and safety, he explains, and the Interconnector is a flow-and-safety route.
“It gives us our downtown core back to redevelop and help us through this transition period.
“That’s the political reality we’re living in and that’s what council supports. That’s why the [Cariboo Regional District] and the Quesnel Downtown Association, West Fraser, Cariboo Pulp & Paper – you name it and people are getting behind it – because it’s a real project that we think will actually get built.”
Noting this is a seven-stage process, Simpson says stage 6 is MOTI locking in projects it believes are technically feasible and discounting ones they don’t believe it could support going forward.
“In that process, there’s the Racing Road/Hydraulic Road fix. That’s part of the process that needs to go forward. There’s this year’s 2018 build – Front Street getting fixed and McLean and so on.
“The two projects we’re trying to get people to get their arms around is the Interconnector proposal and the Racing Road/Hydraulic Road fix because MOTI said those are projects it can support.
“Stage 7 is whether or not there’s community support for those projects. If we have community support, then the next stage would be the planning dollars to turn those two proposals into actual engineered projects that can be built.”
The mayor says council hopes the Racing Road/Hydraulic Road project would be a 2019 or 2020 project, and the Interconnector could potentially start three or four years from now.
“The reason we’re trying to be politically smart on this is the Quesnel River Bridge has to be replaced in eight to 10 years maximum, but the rail bridge has to be rebuilt three to five years from now.
“There’s a clock ticking on that bridge. If we can get an agreement from our community, the ministry and the Province that the clock means this whole new way to route traffic has to happen.”
How do you gauge the community?
“Very good question.”
There are legal requirements, the mayor says, adding the City could not go to the public about any of these proposed routes, particularly the Interconnector, because it involves private landowners’ right to get first notice that their land may have to be purchased in order to make the project happen.
“So when we had an agreement with the ministry and it locked it down – this is the broad brush route – the next stage would refine the route and then they knew what the property impact was.
“So those property owners would have to be notified before anything came to the public.”
They were given a letter and an opportunity to meet face-to-face with MOTI, Simpson says, adding the next stage requires full disclosure to the entire population.
“This is where some people really struggled, because their property isn’t being purchased but they’re close to that highway, and they felt they should be notified earlier and should be involved in the consultation process.
“That’s not the way the law works. They don’t have special voting rights on a project just because it’s close to them.
“If you think about it, you probably wouldn’t get a public sector or housing project built if you have the impacted property owners and the people around it have a say. Ninety per cent of them are going to say, ‘not in my back yard’.”
From a legal perspective, Simpson says those landowners don’t have any more rights than the people living in Fraser Village or who own retail property on Front Street, or the people living in West Quesnel who don’t like driving on Front Street.
“While those residents claim they have a special interest, which they do, it doesn’t accrue them special rights. So that second tier has to be the entire community engagement.”
The mayor says he’s been on the phone and answering emails, because at the end of the day, he wants to make sure the city gets informed consent or informed support.
From the ministry’s perspective, Simpson says they’re going to do a count.
“They’ll look at the gross numbers – who showed up and who said yes. From our perspective as a council, we look at the balance.
“We look at whether we are balancing the interests in a way that takes into consideration those who are concerned about this. So will we build mitigation strategies to try to reduce those concerns, and are we balancing the desperate needs for people to get that truck traffic out of our downtown core?
“We never do a numbers count unless we go to referendum, and in this case … it’s not how it works.”
The mayor adds council and the ministry will see how the numbers come out of the open house to see if there’s an overwhelming opposition … and go from there.
Residents can still go online at www.gov.bc.ca/quesneltransportationstudy to look at the options and provide feedback via a survey form, by the deadline of the end of the day today (Feb. 21).