Back to the fu­ture: ‘ The Coq’ is fin­ished, tolling in B. C. isn’t

Vancouver Sun - - British Columbia - VAUGHN PALMER

VIC­TO­RIA rans­porta­tion Min­is­ter Kevin Fal­con was in a re­flec­tive mood re­cently as he presided at a high­way open­ing in the south­ern In­te­rior.

His min­istry had just com­pleted the last bit of un­fin­ished con­struc­tion work on the Co­qui­halla high­way sys­tem, up­grad­ing the only re­main­ing two- lane stretch to four lanes.

“ One of the high­lights of my time as min­is­ter,” said Fal­con, who noted that the project was an­nounced way back in 1977. “ It’s the com­ple­tion of a 30- year vi­sion.”

Re­gret­tably, his speak­ing notes made no men­tion of an­other im­por­tant an­niver­sary.

For the rib­bon- cut­ting on July 24 marked 20 years to the day since the launch­ing of the pub­lic in­quiry into the Co­qui­halla bud­get over­run.

Pre­mier Bill Van­der Zalm did the deed amid re­ports that con­struc­tion of the high­way was cost­ing far more than the then So­cial Credit gov­ern­ment let on.

His pre­de­ces­sor, Bill Ben­nett, had or­dered the project fast­tracked be­fore leav­ing of­fice in 1986. Van­der Zalm was new to the job and no fan of Ben­nett.

He or­dered a pub­lic in­quiry, with full pow­ers to call wit­nesses, pe­ruse gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments, and get at the rea­sons for any cost over­runs.

This was in the days be­fore the courts ham­strung pub­lic in­quiries with so many re­stric­tions that they were un­able to get to the bot­tom of any­thing with­out huge ex­pen­di­tures of time and le­gal fees.

The Co­qui­halla in­quiry came back with its find­ings in a mere five months, no punches pulled.

In­quiry com­mis­sioner Douglas MacKay, lawyer Ge­orge Macinto s h a n d foren­sic ac­coun­tant David Hooper went at their job with a de­ter­mi­na­tion that led So­cred ( and for­mer Ben­nett aide) Bud Smith to ac­cuse them of hav­ing a case of “ Water­gate pe­nis envy.”

They dis­cov­ered the high­way was cost­ing $ 1 bil­lion, dou­ble

Twhat Ben­nett and his min­is­ters had been telling the pub­lic.

More­over, they found gov­ern­ment knew very well about the over­runs and kept the truth from the leg­is­la­ture and the pub­lic.

Even at a dis­tance of 20 years, the MacKay com­mis­sion re­port makes for dev­as­tat­ing read­ing.

“ The com­mis­sioner finds the fi­nan­cial re­port­ing of the Co­qui­halla High­way project to be tainted with an at­mos­phere of de­ceit and pre­var­i­ca­tion by both politi­cians and pub­lic ser­vants. The leg­is­la­ture was avoided, the leg­is­la­ture was mis­led by the doc­u­ments pre­sented to it, the true costs were not re­ported in a forth­right way.

“ Th e s e d e l i b e rate and planned ac­tions were po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated and were de­signed to give the im­pres­sion of good over­all bud­get­ing and, specif­i­cally, that the Co­qui­halla was on bud­get.”

De­ceit. Pre­var­i­ca­tion. The leg­is­la­ture avoided and mis­led. A de­lib­er­ate, po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated coverup . . . .

The only sav­ing grace for the So­creds was that most of the key play­ers had al­ready moved on.

But the scan­dal, in­flicted by one So­cred pre­mier on an­other, deep­ened the di­vi­sions with the gov­ern­ing party.

When the pub­lic turned on Van­der Zalm later, more than a few mem­bers of his party thought he had it com­ing.

The high­way it­self did re­cover from the em­bar­rass­ment, par­tic­u­larly af­ter all three branches were opened, pro­vid­ing a time­sav­ing link be­tween the Coast and the south­ern In­te­rior.

In­deed the Co q , a s i t i s known, be­came so pop­u­lar with those who use it reg­u­larly that there was a huge pub­lic out­cry when the B. C. Lib­eral gov­ern­ment pro­posed pri­va­tiz­ing it.

Irony mavens may wish to note that Fal­con’s lit­tle ex­er­cise in clo­sure on the 24th was four years and a day from his gov­ern­ment’s back­down on plans to sell the high­way to private in­vestors.

Still, the Co­qui­halla has not com­pletely lost its ca­pac­ity for gen­er­at­ing con­tro­versy.

The an­nounce­ment that con­struc­tion is now fin­ished was fol­lowed by a round of calls for gov­ern­ment to re­move the tolls.

Tolls put there — as ev­ery school child in the area served knows — as a “ tem­po­rary” mea­sure, to off­set the cost of ac­cel­er­at­ing con­struc­tion in time for the Expo 86 World’s Fair.

That tab was fully cov­ered years ago, but suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have found any num­ber of rea­sons to pro­long the $ 50- mil­lion- a- year cash flow from the toll booths.

Main­te­nance costs. Debt re­tire­ment. Re­cov­er­ing the full cost of build­ing it. Try sell­ing those ra­tio­nales to folks who rely on the high­way.

“ It is not fair that In­te­rior trav­ellers are the only ones who must pay to main­tain their high­way,” the Pen­tic­ton Her­ald ed­i­to­ri­al­ized re­cently.

Those trav­ellers won’t be unique much longer, with tolling sched­uled for the new Golden Ears Bridge and also the twinned Port Mann.

The re- emer­gence of tolling on the Lower Main­land sug­gests that the booths on the Co­qui­halla may never close their doors.

How­ever, Fal­con doesn’t com­pletely rule out re­lief, say­ing, “ I think at some point we’ll be look­ing at the toll sit­u­a­tion.”

If that day ever comes, then B. C. can re­ally close the book on the Co­qui­halla con­tro­versy.

[email protected] di­rect. ca

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.