Tunnel plan keeps resurfacing

Monday, February 11th, 2002

Business lobby’s vision of a subsea link to the North Shore is the latest rebirth of a century-old dream

Jeff Lee

1931: Page from January 25, 1931, edition of The Sunday Province newspaper showing W. Crowe Sword’s proposed car tunnel.

1954: From Sun files, November 1954: a sketch of a proposed $25-million four-lane tunnel under First Narrows in the Burrard Inlet, designed by Victor David of David Neon Ltd.

1967: Plan for a proposed tunnel beneath Burrard Inlet near First Narrows. The plan, created by Per Hall Associates in 1967, is painted on a photograph of the area.

1994: Cross-section of Harbourlink idea for a combined road and light rail tunnel, one of five proposed to the NDP.

1959: Sketch from Sun files of the south end of a proposed tunnel across Burrard Inlet to the North Shore, showing Chilco, Alberni and Georgia Streets converging on the entrance to the tunnel.

1972: Photomontage from Sun files showing Swan Wooster’s proposed peninsula and North Shore tunnel crossing for the Burrard Inlet.

(Map of Vancouver)

For more than a century — even before the horseless carriage arrived in Vancouver — some people have been preoccupied with trying to connect the North Shore communities to Vancouver via a tunnel under Burrard Inlet.

The latest proposal to build a six-kilometre tunnel from Main at Terminal in Vancouver to Capilano Road in North Vancouver is but another one of those ideas that have captivated us since the Burrard Inlet Tunnel and Bridge Company first proposed a tunnel under Lions Gate in 1894.

This continuing interest in subterranean transportation links has spawned ideas over the century both realistic and whimsical, with some bordering on the fantastic.

These dreams of tunnels have been linked inextricably to the political ambitions of the day. In the 1960s through to the 1970s, it was then-premier W.A.C. Bennett and “Flying Phil” Gaglardi, his highways minister, who brought the idea of an automobile tunnel closest to fruition, and in the process helped trigger the infamous “freeway debates” that led to the quashing of any third crossing and the banning of freeways within Vancouver city limits.

The third crossing and freeway debate bracketed the political career of Michael Harcourt. He entered Vancouver civic politics as a lawyer defending Strathcona and Chinatown property owners who would have been affected by the construction.

But 24 years later, as premier, he ignited another third-crossing debate when the NDP sought alternatives to repairing or replacing the aging Lions Gate Bridge. It chose to redeck the bridge, and ignored at least four submarine concepts, some of which would have cost as much as $1.2 billion.

However, the idea of building a tunnel continues to be bandied about. This week, a business lobby group called TransVision, made up of organizations like the Greater Vancouver Gateway Council, the Vancouver Board of Trade and municipal chambers of commerce, released a poll showing 77 per cent of Lower Mainland residents support the idea of a toll tunnel.

The idea of a subsea link was born out of a necessity to link the two sides of the inlet more securely than by the frail bridge at Second Narrows, built in 1925, which was continually being knocked out of service by wayward tugs and freighters pushed about by the inlet’s strong rip tides.

The first proposal in 1894 by Burrard Inlet Tunnel and Bridge appeared to be more one of whimsy. It received government approval, but the company eventually built a bridge at Second Narrows.

But the idea was resurrected again in at least 1931, 1954, 1959, throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, 1993, 1994 and this year.

One of the earliest serious tunnel proposals came in 1931, after a tug knocked out the Second Narrows bridge for the 20th time. R. Crowe Swords proposed to a Royal Commission investigating the accident (which knocked out bridge traffic to North Vancouver for four years) that not one, but two tunnels be built to the North Shore.

Swords thought two side-by-side automobile tunnels should start near Lost Lagoon and dip under the Stanley Park zoo “where the buffalo are quartered.” The North Vancouver portal would have been east of the Capilano River. He also suggested a rail tunnel should be built from the east end of False Creek to the old Moodyville site on the other side of the Second Narrows.

His idea for the self-financed tunnels never came to fruition, and West Vancouver businessman A.J.T. Taylor proceeded with plans to build the Lions Gate Bridge, on which construction was started in 1936. But ever since, Sword’s view that the tunnel should start in or near Stanley Park has been faithfully replicated over the years. Nearly seven decades after his drawing of a tunnel incorporating the park appeared in the Sunday Province, engineers were still using similar locations.

In 1954, Victor David of David Neon Ltd. reopened the debate. He proposed a $25-million, four-lane tunnel starting in Stanley Park and ending at the then-Pacific Great Eastern railway station in North Vancouver.

His argument was that bridges were “obsolete” and a danger to navigation. Premier Bennett expressed interest in the idea, but it appeared to go nowhere.

In 1958, Vancouver alderman Halford Wilson championed a tunnel crossing, estimating it would cost about $150 million to construct. No less than four engineering firms devised proposals, including one for a 4.5-kilometre tunnel from Lions Gate to False Creek.

Gaglardi, the highways minister, dubbed it “Hal Wilson’s pipedream.” But two years later, Gaglardi came out with a tunnel concept of his own that included a rapid transit monorail and would cost upwards of $500 million.

The idea included a twinning of the Lions Gate Bridge.

In 1962, Hans Bentzen, one of the engineers managing construction of the Massey Tunnel at Deas Island, proposed a similar immersed tube tunnel in Burrard Inlet. (An immersed tube tunnel is one made of prefabricated sections and laid on the bottom of a waterway, instead of being bored through bedrock.)

The Massey tunnel, which opened in 1963, was one of the first of its kind in the world. Bentzen was one of the most consistent proponents of an inlet tunnel, making repeated representations to government — the last time when the NDP considered alternatives to rebuilding the First Narrows bridge.

But perhaps the most fantastic of the proposals over the last century was that of the engineering firm Swan Wooster. In the mid-1960s, it suggested building a $100-million causeway with entrances at Thurlow and Bute Streets on the south side, running out into the inlet near Prospect Point, where the tunnel would start. By the 1970s, the proposal had been modified to create a dramatic, three-kilometre peninsula made from reclaimed land connected on one side to a tunnel under downtown Vancouver ending at False Creek, and to the tunnel under the inlet ending near Pemberton in North Vancouver.

It was Bentzen, however, who kept the flame for a tunnel alight in the 1990s. He never gave up, and with a colleague, Kurt Helin, proposed in 1993 a new, $1.2 billion concept that incorporated a proposed 70-hectare island off Prospect Point that would have been built with material excavated for the tunnel. He wanted to develop the island with high-end residential towers, which he said would finance the whole project.

Bentzen’s proposal was one of at least five tunnel ideas considered by the NDP between 1994 and 1996, including ones by Klohn-Crippen Engineering, Sandwell Engineering, Harbourlink (Barry Griblin) and Vimarc Consulting. Most were centred around Stanley Park, but Vimarc’s proposal was for a $450-million, four-lane tunnel from Clark Street in Vancouver to Lonsdale Avenue in North Vancouver.

Bentzen died in 1997 at the age of 90, shortly after the NDP government rejected all the plans and decided instead to redeck the bridge. His widow, Virginia Bentzen, said this week he was disappointed no one ever built the tunnel, but he remained convinced to the end that one eventually would be built.

Harcourt said Wednesday he too believes a tunnel will one day be necessary. But he’s not convinced it needs to be built around grandiose plans that include causeways, islands, long submarine tunnels or big highways.

Like Sword 70 years ago, he thinks a simple, four-lane tunnel starting near Lost Lagoon and ending in North Vancouver will do more to ease traffic congestion than any bridge over the inlet.

© Copyright 2002 Vancouver Sun

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