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UPDATED: Groundbreaking of new Massey Tunnel replacement bridge met with protesters

Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Todd Stone is in Delta to break ground on the new $3.5 billion bridge
Protesters and journalists waited outside the Delta firehall for Todd Stone to leave after the groundbreaking announcement for the George Massey Tunnel replacement bridge.

The official groundbreaking announcement for the $3.5 billion George Massey Tunnel replacement project was forced to move inside the nearby Delta firehall on April 5 when protesters arrived to speak out against the new bridge.

The protesters, holding signs saying "A (Todd) Stone Age Concept" and "Schools Before Bridges" arrived several minutes before the announcement was scheduled to start and lined the edges of the announcement area.

Additional police presence was called in, and the announcement was moved inside the hall. When the media and government representatives were inside, the doors were locked. The protesters were not allowed in.

Inside, Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Todd Stone commented on the protesters waiting outside the building.

"Everyone is entitled to their opinion," he said. "We absolutely respect the views of the people who have arrived here today who do not support this project. And we respect their right to make those views known."

However, he continued, "we also have an obligation to do what we consider is in the best interest of British Columbians."

Stone, Delta North MLA Scott Hamilton, Richmond East MLA Lind Reid, Delta Mayor Lois Jackson and Richmond Farmers' Institute representative Todd May all spoke at the announcement.

The new bridge, Stone said, will help create a safer passage over the Fraser River both for first responders and in the event of an earthquake. It will also improve transportation for truckers and farmers — creating what May called a "bridge to the world."

The bridge is also intended to alleviate the pressure on what is considered one of the worst bottlenecks in Canada. Stone was late for Wednesday's event because of traffic congestion in the tunnel.

"People are sitting in these lines everyday for at least half an hour," Stone said. "Longer than they need to. Longer than they will when this tunnel will be replaced."

The 10-lane bridge will save commuters four to five hours of time a week, Stone said.

No one at the announcement — inside the hall or outside of it — said the tunnel infrastructure shouldn't be upgraded.

However, as proven by the dozens of protesters outside the firehall, not everyone agrees with how that is happening.

The environmental impact of a bridge rather than a twin tunnel was contested at the announcement, although it has already received its environmental assessment approval.

Outside, Richmond resident Gary Nix said a new bridge would pose a problem for the ecosystem in the Fraser River. He lives near where the new bridge would touch down, and said he was protesting because he cares "about the wildlife and the river."

"The tunnel works for me," he said. "It's just we need more lanes."

Inside during the announcement, Stone said the opposite: that a twinned tunnel would actually do more environmental harm than a bridge.

Richmond council, historically against the new bridge, was conspicuous at Wednesday's announcement by their absence.

Many Metro Vancouver mayors have spoken out against the bridge; an outlier is Delta Mayor Lois Jackson, who strongly supports the project.

"I don't report to the mayors of Metro Vancouver. I report to the taxpayers of British Columbia," Stone said.

The announcement marked the unofficial start of the election campaign, Stone said, separating those who will stand with the Liberal agenda from those who "say no to projects, say no to the creation of jobs."

Officially the groundbreaking, which took place nine kilometres away from the George Massey Tunnel, marked the first day of construction for the $3.5 billion project.

RELATED: Massey Bridge not on federal governments list of infrastructure investments

So far, two contracts have been awarded for site preparation work to improve drainage and ground conditions in advance of major project construction.

Hall Constructors of Surrey has been awarded an $11.5-million contract for site preparation work south of the tunnel.

A contract valued at $5.8 million has been awarded to B&B Heavy Civil Construction of Surrey for site preparation along Highway 99 between Bridgeport Road and Steveston Highway.

Bridge construction is set to be finished in 2022, and the tunnel will be decommissioned sometime after that.

"It's been five years of talk," Stone said. "It's time to move on to action."

-With files from Ashley Wadhwani