B.C. Premier Christy Clark promised work will start on a new bridge to replace the George Massey Tunnel south of Vancouver by 2017, during her keynote address to municipal leaders at the final day of the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Vancouver this morning.

The conventions have historically served as occasions for previous Liberal governments to make big financial announcements, such as removing the tolls on the Coquihalla Highwayintroducing smart meters and electrifying northern B.C. 

But Clark's promise this year was more of an update on last year's speech, when she first announced plans to replace the tunnel. After studying the options for a year, today Clark confirmed the government has decided it will be replaced with a bridge at the same location.

"We are keeping our promise to replace the George Massey Tunnel and improve the Highway 99 corridor, starting in 2017," said Clark.

"Congestion at the tunnel is frustrating for families and stalling the economy. A new bridge will improve travel times for transit, commuters and commercial users, and open the corridor up to future rapid transit options."

Although Clark said work will begin in four years time, she didn't offer a cost estimate, time-line for completion, or say if there will be tolls on the bridge -- which would link most of Metro Vancouver to B.C.'s busiest ferry terminal and the main border crossing with Washington State.

To provide context for the financial scale of the tunnel replacement project, Clark pointed to the recent Port Mann Bridge
project, where a new 10-lane, toll-bridge bridge between Surrey and Coquitlam was constructed.

"The Port Mann Bridge itself was about $830 million and the associate improvements along the highway, the Cape Horn Interchange, et cetera, were another couple of billion dollars. That'll give you a kind of a sense of the project cost of the whole project. It could be in that neighbourhood," she said.

Engineering and technical work is already underway to determine the scope of the project, which will be presented for public discussion next spring. In the interim, work will begin to expand the Steveston off-ramp at the north end of the tunnel to reduce congestion.

Clark also renewed another promise she made last year to spend more than half a billion dollars to "four-lane" the remaining two-lane sections of the Trans Canada Highway and upgrade other highways in B.C.

Natural gas investment promised

Clark used much of her speech to promote her vision for an expanded the natural gas industry in B.C. and promised municipal leaders that the province will work to ensure their communities benefit from the economic and job opportunities. She also singled out many municipal leaders for their hard work in their communities.

She also spoke about her own family's long history in B.C. and said it was time for British Columbians to reconcile their relations with First Nations. And she announced the appointment of a blue ribbon panel to study ways to reduce crime rates.

Clark opened her speech on a humorous note with a reference to her come-from-behind defeat of the NDP in the May provincial election. 

"I think I ended my speech by saying I hope to be back here next year. I think I surprised many of you."

Afterwards she responded to a few motions debated earlier in the week at the UBCM, saying she has no plans to reopen the Riverview psychiatric hospital in Coquitlam or to bring back radar cameras for use in school zones. 

Earlier this morning, federal International Trade Minister Ed Fast told the roughly 2,000 delegates that a new pipeline is needed to maximize the province's economic potential.

Fast says his government will help build up infrastructure in B.C.'s north to support booming oil and gas development and told delegates that Ottawa wants to support anything that is required to get Canadian resources to market.

Delegates also voted down a motion to ask the provincial government to lower municipal speed limits to 40 km/h across the province.

Yesterday, outgoing B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix addressed the convention, just days after announcing he will step down as the leader of the party.

With files from Canadian Press