OPINION: 'Blacktop politics' shows how urban the B.C. NDP has become

For more evidence that the NDP government is very Lower Mainland-centric look no further than last week’s announcement that it would replace the Pattullo Bridge a new one built with provincial dollars.

The government is willing to take the bridge off the hands of TransLink and local mayors and pile up about $1.4 billion (the cost of the bridge replacement) in debt. Don’t expect the NDP to be spending that kind of money on highways and bridges outside the Metro Vancouver area any time soon.

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The NDP owes its position of power to the fact that in the last election it ran the table in almost all the ridings from Boundary Road to Maple Ridge. Smack in the middle of that political geography is the Pattullo Bridge.

There’s nothing quite like blacktop (or, in this case, bridge connection) politics. It’s a time honored tradition for governments to build things in parts of the province that are friendly to it.

First there was Flyin’ Phil Gaglardi, the colorful highways minister under W.A.C. Bennett, who had a penchant for breaking the speed limit on a network of highways built on his watch.

Then the Social Credit government of the 1980s built the Coquihalla Highway, which ran through a number of Socred-friendly ridings in the Interior. The NDP government of the 1990s built the Island Highway, which connects a number of strong NDP ridings, as well as the Millennium SkyTrain extension, which runs through traditional NDP ridings in Burnaby and the Tri-Cities.

The previous B.C. Liberal government, having built the Port Mann Bridge to serve the politically vitally important area of the Fraser River suburbs, was all set to build a mammoth bridge to replace the Massey Tunnel. That would have served Richmond, Delta and Vancouver, all areas of Liberal strength.

But the new NDP government made it clear it was having none of that, and consigned the Massey crossing to further and perhaps prolonged study. The tunnel will eventually have to be replaced, but it appears to rank at least fourth of fifth on the NDP’s list of transportation infrastructure priorities.

It’s been thought for some time the number 1 priority for the region’s mayors has been replacing the aging and crumbling Pattullo Bridge, yet the previous government was deaf to their concerns, smug in the knowledge it belonged to Translink and therefore the mayors would have to figure out a way to pay for it.

The 2013 election result, which shifted the core political power of the B.C. Liberal Party to much of the Interior, helped shape that government’s views on Lower Mainland transportation issues.  Essentially, the B.C. Liberals all but ignored them, at one point requiring a referendum to increase taxes to pay for projects had to be passed first, a doomed scenario from the start.

The 2017 election result, which centred the NDP’s power base in the eastern suburbs and much of Surrey, has likewise had the same impact on that party’s views on transportation issues. The NDP has little elected representation outside of Metro Vancouver and Vancouver Island (a mere five seats) so by political necessity it has to pay extra attention to its urban base.

The Pattullo Bridge is surrounded by about a dozen or so ridings held by the NDP, including a few they poached from the B.C. Liberals. There are the four Burnaby ridings, New Westminster, three Tri-Cities seats and five Surrey ridings, all of which are home to a lot of people who regularly drive the Pattullo.

So it comes as no surprise this government is willing to dive headfirst into the expensive, but politically charged, exercise of building big things where their voters are.

With the Pattullo Bridge riddle now solved, look for the NDP government to ramp up planning for the Broadway subway line and light rail transit lines in Surrey. The B.C. Liberals showed little interest in either project, but the NDP is keen to cement its support among urban transit users. Hence its likely enthusiasm to help build both lines.

This is all blacktop politics to a point, but it’s also smart politics, as well a reflection of how urban-centric the NDP has become.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global B.C.

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