Would a Bridge to the Sunshine Coast Ruin Everything?

With a fixed link again on the table, the Sunshine Coast is split on whether easier access will benefit the remote oasis.

April 11, 2017

By Amy O'Brian / Photo: Kevin Wells (without bridge)

For decades, the prospect of a fixed link to the Lower Mainland has floated around the Sunshine Coast, exciting proponents with the idea of spontaneous travel along open stretches of road. Property developers would welcome the real estate potential lying in the wooded outskirts of Gibsons—a possible bedroom community for first-time homebuyers shut out by the Lower Mainland’s stratospheric prices. Our bridge-loving premier has likely dreamed of adding another impressive span to her growing collection (see the Port Mann and George Massey bridge projects). And at least some users of the Langdale ferry have whiled away long waits by imagining a life with a simpler commute.

While a government study looking at the feasibility of fixed-link options to the Sunshine Coast is nudging these visions toward reality, there are plenty of coastal folk who think a bridge (or road along the west side of Howe Sound) will ruin their slice of paradise. It’s the ferry, they argue, that keeps the riffraff at bay and allows the place to maintain its quiet, idyllic feel.

Either a bridge, as our rendering imagines, or a road would open up the Sunshine Coast to real estate and business interest from the Lower Mainland. But not everyone agrees that’s a good thing.

“A lot of people like that we’re slightly isolated. We have [a low] crime rate. People like these aspects of living here,” says Nicholas Simons, the NDP MLA for Powell River–Sunshine Coast. But the steady erosion of the ferry service has made life on the coast—particularly the northern coast—increasingly difficult. The cost of the ferries has risen steadily, he says, while service has decreased. (Fares for two adults and a car from Horseshoe Bay to Langdale have increased by nearly 30 percent since 2008.)

“There are a lot of reasons to be frustrated and to be looking for alternatives. The more the government undermines our current [ferry] system, the more people will be looking for something else,” says Simons.

According to the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, the Sunshine Coast Fixed Link Feasibility Study is a response to years of residents and businesses advocating for a bridge or road to replace the existing ferry service between the Lower Mainland and the Sunshine Coast. But Simons, a three-term MLA, says he doesn’t often hear from constituents who want a fixed link, despite their frustrations with the ferries.

“When the government says there is growing demand, where is that coming from?” Simons asks, adding that his constituents are split on the issue.

Michele Whiting, general manager of Gramma’s Pub in Gibsons, says she would consider leaving the Sunshine Coast if a bridge or road is built. A lifelong resident of the coast, she has no problem with the ferry that keeps her community relatively safe. Even though a bridge could potentially bring more business to her pub, “it’s a waste of taxpayer money,” she says. “I can’t see it ever happening…No one’s going to hop on a fixed link to come to Gramma’s for a burger and a beer.”

Yet highway improvements have made Squamish and Whistler an easy trip from Vancouver. Plenty of people now visit for a day—or even just a burger and a beer—and potential travellers to Gibsons could follow suit.

“When the government says there is growing demand, where is that coming from?” —Nicholas Simons, NDP MLA for Powell River-Sunshine Coast

The government’s feasibility study outlines two options for connecting the lower Sunshine Coast to the Sea-to-Sky Highway. One is a pair of suspension bridges, each about 1,500 metres long, that would span Howe Sound, meeting in the middle at Anvil Island. The estimated construction costs range between $2 billion and $2.5 billion, and travel time from Horseshoe Bay to Langdale would be about 40 minutes (the same as the current ferry crossing).

The other option would connect Squamish to Langdale with a new road along the west coast of Howe Sound, making the trip from Horseshoe Bay to Langdale about 90 minutes. The price tag would be between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.

“My bet would be on the bridge,” says Gary Fribance, president of the Third Crossing Society, which has been advocating for years for an east-west road connection from Powell River to Highway 99, north of Squamish.

While it’s “overwhelmingly wonderful” to live in Powell River, at the northern end of the Sunshine Coast, says Fribance, he notes the region is in the midst of an “economic nightmare.” Schools are closing and young people are unable to find work.

Jack Barr, a director of Sunshine Coast Tourism and president of the Powell River Chamber of Commerce, believes a fixed link would benefit the economies of Gibsons, Sechelt, Pender Harbour and Powell River. Currently, the trek from Powell River to the Lower Mainland is an onerous one, requiring two ferry crossings and hours of driving. A reliable road or bridge could  ease the commute considerably by putting  Gibsons within an easy drive from downtown Vancouver. “The link is a game-changer for the coast,” Barr says.

Geoff Gornall, a 29-year-old entrepreneur new to the Sunshine Coast, speaks diplomatically about the link proposal. He and his two equally youthful business partners recently opened the Sunshine Coast’s newest microbrewery, Gibsons Tapworks. They chose the coast, in part, because of its affordability and because they all wanted to buy property, which they have now been able to do.

“Generally speaking, we moved for the lifestyle,” he says. “For what you can afford in Vancouver—a one-bedroom condo—here, you can own a house.”

But as much as a bridge or road would simplify the logistics of moving hops from Chilliwack to the brewery, Gornall can understand why so many people are opposed to the idea. “I wouldn’t put us firmly in either camp,” he says.

A bridge would put Horseshoe Bay within a 40-minute drive from Langdale on the Sunshine Coast, while the road option would connect Langdale to Highway 99 near Squamish, putting travel time to the Lower Mainland at about 90 minutes. Both options are being considered to replace the current 40-minute ferry crossing.

Suzanne Senger moved to the Sunshine Coast 15 years ago and ran for mayor of Gibsons in 2014. She now works for a non-profit organization, which requires her to take the ferry to Vancouver once or twice a week. It’s a way of working that she says has become increasingly common for people on the coast. But there are also the hard-core commuters—of which there are about 1,000—who make the trip every day to jobs on the other side. Senger believes few of them want a bridge.

“I haven’t heard any of them say they would rather drive. They can work on the ferry, relax, sleep,” she says. “I think we need better ferry service. We don’t need a bridge.”

Of course, nothing has been decided—and won’t be for some time. Even once an option has been chosen, there will be further studies, consultations, negotiations. Jordan Sturdy, the Liberal MLA for West Vancouver–Sea-to-Sky, says the work that’s been done has “just scratched the surface.”

Regional First Nations must be consulted. Infrastructure implications for the Sunshine Coast, as well as the North Shore, must be examined.

It will be at least a decade before a fixed link to the Sunshine Coast would be complete, Sturdy says, but he feels it’s time to start putting ideas to paper and studying them thoroughly.

“It’s time, in my mind, to have an informed conversation,” he says. “This is a very big-picture, long-term discussion of the project.”

Do you think the Sunshine Coast should be connected to the Lower Mainland via bridge or road? Let us know in the comments below!

 

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.