The Massey Tunnel—replace or conserve?

Have you heard of the Massey Tunnel Conservation Project? I hope you will, but so far the project name says “Replacement.”

In Phase 1, “Understanding the Need,” the project team consulting the public did admit that keeping the current tunnel is an option, but quietly, and there was no keep-the-tunnel choice on the feedback form.

As a stakeholder in Phase 2, “Exploring Options,” I’ll try to get conservation options studied along with replacement ones. For now, let’s see what’s already known.

The project home page says “the existing tunnel has approximately 10 to 15 years of useful life remaining,” but details elsewhere show that the needs are just for stabilizing the ground and replacing operating systems. If it’s found that the “tube,” the tunnel structure, can remain sound, the rest is only renovation.

The Massey structure, which opened in 1959, is an immersed tube. It was prefabricated in concrete sections that were towed into position, sunk into a trench, joined and held in place. Much older immersed-tube tunnels are still going strong, including a 1928 one beneath an Oakland-area estuary and the 1930 Detroit–Windsor Tunnel beneath the Detroit River.

The Massey Tunnel is most like the tunnel under the Maas River in Rotterdam that was completed 17 years earlier by the same Danish engineering firm. After renovation last year, it seems to be doing fine.

Unlike some immersed-tube tunnels that use round steel tube clad with concrete, the Maas and Massey tunnels used rectangular concrete tube. It handles external pressure less efficiently, but that seems to have just meant a little more cost for the needed strength.

The only evident reason for getting rid of the Massey Tunnel is to deepen the channel to allow larger freighters up the Fraser River. However, the Deltaport expansion at Roberts Bank is already providing more berths for them. After losing the Gilmore farm to Port Metro Vancouver, we can do without giant freighters that trigger even more port sprawl on Richmond farmland.

Of course, the ongoing traffic clog where Steveston Highway meets Highway 99 near the tunnel needs to be cleared. That simply requires the City of Richmond to fix the congestion it brought on.

Massey Tunnel use has declined from its 2004 peak, but the “Exploring Options” phase of the project will still look at added capacity. To prepare, I’ve read the project’s online reports and the 1955 reports on bridge and tunnel options for the Fraser at Deas Island by a Vancouver engineering firm. (Both were feasible. The bridge was cheaper.)

It strikes me that the towering approaches for a bridge would make it undesirable. In contrast, a new two-lane tube might be okay beside the existing tunnel.

The new tube could replace a pair of tunnel lanes at a time during renovation and could become a transit tube. A key factor for study is how close a new trench can be dug without destabilizing the tunnel.

In any case, there’s potential for increased use of buses and high occupancy vehicles to reduce the tunnel traffic. Let’s start with that.

For more on this, see Stephen Rees’s blog. Richmond resident Rees is a transportation expert with ever-insightful analysis.

Jim Wright is president of the Garden City Conservation Society.

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