B.C.’s remote ‘best kept secret’ ponders ambitious bridge proposal, and a land rush

GIBSONS, B.C. — It’s a 40-minute ferry trip from Bay, near , to this coastal spot. Ten nautical miles is really not much. But with no roads from the south, the distance feels great, what with infrequent sailings, occasional equipment failures, odd mishaps at the dock.

By virtue of geography — and unsteady, expensive B.C. Ferries service — Gibsons and the rest of the that stretch another 180 kilometres north are, according to local tourism promotional fluff, the province’s “best kept secret.”

It’s a lovely region, to be sure, and essentially remote, cut off from from the crowded lower mainland. Depending on one’s perspective, this is a blessing, or a curse.

There’s now a plan brewing, an scheme that would bridge the ocean-filled gap. B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure is floating proposals that would allow cars and trucks to bypass or traverse Howe Sound, the body of water that separates Gibsons and points north from the hurly-burly south.

The Sunshine Coast Fixed Link Study is in the embryonic stage, with preliminary planning barely underway and a public consultation process that ended Thursday, in a Gibsons’ hotel meeting room filled with inscrutable maps and busy display boards.

Locals packed the place. Most seemed to the fixed-link idea, in principle at least, because they are fed up with their isolation and worried about the region’s economic future. They are also tired of being at the mercy of a massively subsidized, unreliable ferry.

Jodie McKague/Postmedia/File
Jodie McKague/Postmedia/FileThe marina at Gibsons, B.C.

This isn’t their first fixed-link rodeo; locals recall a proposal back in 1998 and another in 2001; those went nowhere, alas.

“I’ve been listening tomainl this my whole life,” said Jordan , a B.C. Liberal MLA who represents the riding of West Vancouver Sea-to-Sky, on the suburban, southern side of the watery divide. “But it’s always been a speculative .”

The discussion involves several different plans. One or all could be adopted, eventually. The most viable, say people at Thursday’s open house, is a suspension bridge/road that would see traffic divert from the highway near Horseshoe Bay, cross Howe Sound at its narrowest point, touch land for a bit at tiny Anvil Island, then complete the crossing on a second bridge that would reach the shore north of Gibsons.

Estimated construction cost: $2 billion to $2.5 billion.

Other scenarios include building a long, curving highway from the end of Howe Sound, through a stretch of coastal mountains, ending up near Powell River, a struggling mill town on the Sunshine Coast’s northern tip.

“That one seems impractical, said Gibsons resident Elizabeth , eying a diagram at the open house. “I’m for the bridge. It makes perfect sense.”

Restall, who is retired, thinks the Sunshine Coast is a great place to live, “but there’s not enough work for younger people.” Families struggle here. There are few jobs, which explains why so many residents — about 1,000 a day — endure the long commute by ferry to Vancouver every weekday morning.

A fixed link would spur local development, Restall thinks. There would be a real estate rush, paving the way for more businesses, and job creation. Gibsons would likely change forever. “For the better,” Restall added. Traffic, noise and pollution? She says she could live with that.

Kate-Louise Stamford approached. She’s a local trustee for the Trust, a federation of local governments that serves in the Strait of Georgia, including several in Howe Sound. The Trust is notoriously anti-development; its credo is preservation and protection. At any cost, it sometimes seems.

“It is Islands Trust policy that we do not support fixed links on any of the islands,” she said.

In other words, hands off Anvil Island, a sentiment shared by most if not all  its 18 property owners. “They have grave concerns,” Stamford added. “A bridge to their island is not their vision.”

People live on islands for a reason, after all: the refrain was heard more than once during the open house. And islanders up and down the B.C. coast are an exceptionally isolationist lot.

Sturdy knows this better than most. Asked for his opinion on proposal, he ducked. “I am supportive of (land) connections, generally,” he said.

From what corner, then, did this latest round of fixed link plotting emerge? What public officer holder will champion the multi-billion dollar cause? No one seemed sure, not in Gibsons on Thursday, at least.

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About Brian Hutchinson