The following op-ed by ICBA president Chris Gardner was first published in the Alaska Highway News on May 21, 2021:
In the age of COVID-19, it’s difficult for other news stories to get much attention. People are rightly focused on protecting their families and neighbours, preserving their jobs and small businesses, and thinking of the day when their lives can return to a more normal and natural rhythm of family, community, sports, and work gatherings.
Decisions in Ottawa and Victoria that would normally be the subject of well-publicized debate and media coverage is another of the many casualties from the weariness settling into people’s lives as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The recent B.C. Budget is an example of this phenomenon. Like a shooting star, it appeared on a Tuesday, (April 20th), lighting up the media sky for all of 24 hours, and then disappeared.
But if one takes time to do a proverbial deeper dive into the provincial budget, they will find that once again, the much-needed Taylor Bridge replacement, is nowhere to be found in the Government’s three-year financial outlook. No money, no plan. Despite the fact the 61-year-old Highway 97 bridge is experiencing rapid deterioration of its steel grid deck and catwalk, its name does not garner even a passing reference in the list of favoured projects. If this bridge fails, it will be a massive blow to the residents and economy of both the north and south Peace.
It’s even more troubling when one considers how much extra money the area served by the bridge will pump into provincial coffers in the coming few years. Victoria is generally quite happy to spend the money generated in the Peace River region, but much less interested in funding the infrastructure that makes it possible.
Not only did the natural gas sector help bring last year’s deficit down, it’s set to overperform expectations going forward. Over the next three years, the government expects to pull in $1.35 billion in natural gas royalties and Crown land drilling rights, far more than was expected even a year ago. Most of that money will be generated in the same area the aging Taylor Bridge serves.
This revenue doesn’t take into account the boost in production that will occur when LNG Canada – supplied by the Coastal GasLink pipeline in the south Peace – comes on stream.
Despite this influx of cash and its obvious connection to, and the importance of, the Peace River region, there is not a single dollar budgeted in the three-year plan for replacing the Taylor Bridge. This is a troubling omission and is symptomatic of the tendency for important regional issues to get short shrift from those holding the purse strings in the provincial capital.
Over the next two years, an independent commission will examine the number of seats in the provincial Legislature – the fear is that the large urban centres in the province will see the addition of more members of the Legislative Assembly while regions like the Peace will experience a reduction in seats. This will further dilute the influence of regions vital to creating jobs and opportunity in B.C., and make it harder for voices from the North and the Peace to be heard on important issues that require support from the provincial government.
In an effort to amplify the voices from the Peace, earlier this year, ICBA launched a campaign to get the Taylor Bridge on to the radar of Premier John Horgan and Transportation Minister Rob Fleming. You can help by sending them an email through a website dedicated to building support for a new Taylor Bridge, BuildTaylor.ca.
This disconnect cannot be allowed to get worse, so when the boundary commissioners come knocking, they need to hear loudly and clearly from our northern cities, towns and communities. And, COVID-19 pandemic or not, the Taylor Bridge needs to be replaced.