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Vaughn Palmer: On time and on budget? Doubtful with the B.C. NDP

Opinion: It’s hard to believe there won’t be some sticker shock on the Pattullo and Broadway subway projects

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VICTORIA — Last week’s news release from the B.C. ministry of transportation and infrastructure began, as usual, on a positive note.

“Drivers and people who take transit in the Lower Mainland are closer to faster and more convenient travel as both the Broadway subway project and the Pattullo bridge replacement project have reached significant milestones.”

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Standard fare for government communications. If an earthquake were to strike, the news release would begin: “British Columbians who are buried in rubble can look forward to being rescued soon.”

In this case, the actual news was buried in the text of the release: Both projects were two years behind schedule, milestones notwithstanding.

The four-lane replacement for the current four-lane Pattullo Bridge is now scheduled to open in 2025, not 2023 as originally promised.

The Broadway subway is expected to be complete in 2027, not 2025 as was said when construction began.

A variety of reasons were offered to justify the two-year delays — inflation, the pandemic, complications in construction, a disruption in supply chains.

Transportation minister Rob Fleming even managed to blame Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, and the blockage of shipping lanes in the Red Sea.

The only possibility not entertained was a government propensity to lowball project costs and completion dates beforehand, followed by an inability to manage either, once construction is underway.

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Nor did Fleming acknowledge the possibility of corresponding increases in the budgets for the bridge and the transit subway.

“We’re thinking we’re pretty good in that regard,” he told Jas Johal during an interview on radio station CKNW. “We’ve been very aggressive in managing these contracts.”

But when Johal asked, point blank, whether he could “guarantee that they won’t be going over budget,” Fleming sidestepped.

“The once-in-a-century pandemic was impossible to predict,” the minister told the radio audience. “Those are unforeseen things. But B.C. actually had some of the best return-to-work, and the quickest return-to-work policies. We kept construction going. We’ve done a lot of things to manage this quite well.”

For all those efforts, the new bridge will take 67 per cent longer to build than anticipated when construction started in 2020. The construction schedule for the Broadway subway has been extended by 40 per cent.

But for now, the finished cost for the Pattullo replacement is still said to be $1.377 billion. The Broadway subway is pegged at $2.827 billion. Tops.

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The Broadway Subway Project in August 2023
The Broadway Subway Project in August 2023 Photo by B.C. Ministry of Transportation

Then again, the New Democrats do have difficulty acknowledging budget overruns, even when the numbers are confirmed in the fine print of their own documents.

Health Minister Adrian Dix was on Vancouver Island last week to mark another “milestone,” this time in the construction of the new Cowichan District hospital.

When pressed by reporters, he was briefly at a loss to specify what was the actual news of the day. As it turned out, the reputed milestone was the “structural completion of the treatment centre,” which was not exactly headline news.

He sounded more sure of himself when asked if the new hospital was on time and on budget.

“It’s going to be ready,” Dix assured reporters, “and since the contracts have been set, they are on time and on budget.”

Not even close.

The new Cowichan District hospital was originally supposed to be finished next year at a cost of $887 million. The latest projection is for it to be completed in 2027, or two years behind schedule.

However, in this case, the government makes no pretence of holding the line on the original budget. The completed cost is now said to be $1.446 billion, an overrun of 63 per cent. One factor was the NDP’s insistence on saddling the project with one of their union-favouring community benefits agreements.

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Dix made a similar claim during a recent trip to the northwest, telling reporters that the new hospital is Terrace was also “on time and on budget.”

Nope. When Dix himself announced the replacement for Terrace’s aging Mills Memorial hospital, it was costed at $447 million. The latest figure is $633 million, an increase of 42 per cent.

Dix has a reputation for being the master of statistics. But given his apparent willingness to turn a blind eye to what is happening with budgets and construction schedules, you do have to wonder about the reliability of his claims about reduced wait times and new hires of family doctors.

Nor are the two cases above the worst examples of overruns on his watch. The new Surrey hospital was entered into the government budget documents two years ago at a cost of $1.660 billion with a scheduled completion date of 2027.

But at a groundbreaking ceremony for the project last September, the New Democrats announced the budget had increased to $2.881 billon and the hospital would not be open until 2029.

A two-year extension of the construction schedule and a 74-per-cent overrun — at the ground-breaking ceremony yet.

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It’s hard to believe there won’t be some sticker shock on the Pattullo and Broadway subway projects. The only question is whether the New Democrats admit to it before the election — or afterward.

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