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