Vancouver Sun

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

- 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.

vpalmer@ direct. ca

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