British Columbia·Analysis

Vancouver viaduct spat fuels brewing battle between city and province

The City of Vancouver’s decision to remove the viaducts has led to a war of words between the city and the province.

City's decision to remove the viaducts has led to a war of words

A recent spat between the city and the province regarding the removal of the viaducts may be indicative of larger issues in urban-rural politics. (CBC)

Vancouver is British Columbia's cultural, economic and social hub.

But for many living outside the boundaries of the city — only half-jokingly referred to as Lotusland — Vancouver is also a hub for resentment.

The most humble of houses costs a minimum of a million dollars. It's easier to move a bike around than a car. And the city's interests invariably seem to trump those of neighbouring municipalities.

You couldn't ask for a better illustration of that conflict than the war of words that arose this week between Vancouver's mayor and the provincial transportation minister over a plan to demolish the viaducts that lead into the downtown core.

Political clash

Gregor Robertson's left-leaning Vision council has ruled Vancouver city hall for more than a decade; he calls the plan a "once-in-a-generation city-building opportunity" to create parks, green-space and condos out of a legendary eyesore.

Todd Stone's right-leaning government has ruled B.C. since 2001. He lives in Kamloops, but many of his caucus colleagues represent the Surrey, North Shore and Langley commuters who use the viaducts every day.

B.C. Transportation Minister Todd Stone, left, and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson have opposing views on who should fix the region's transit problem. (CBC)

To them these roadways are not concrete chunks of downtown detritus, but a way to get to work, the theatre or a sporting event.

"On behalf of the province we want to make sure that concerns that we have around the movements of goods and people are considered on a regional level," said Todd Stone.

"Most of the commuters who use the viaducts are not Vancouverites and we want to make sure their perspectives are part of this discussion."

'Very little cooperation'

The future of the viaducts clearly represents much more than just a transportation plan for Vancouver.

"The tone from the province is not collegial," said UBC political scientist David Moscrop. "At the very least, it slows things down and makes it harder to get things done. If you look at the transit referendum there was clearly very little cooperation between the provincial government and Metro Vancouver."

B.C. Premier Christy Clark's home is in Vancouver, but she represents Kelowna. (CBC News)

There is also the issue of whether the premier herself is reading the metropolitan tea leaves accurately. Christy Clark may represent a Kelowna riding, but her home is in Vancouver, even though political success in the province's biggest city has eluded her personally.

Her brief foray into municipal politics in 2005 was stifled after she lost the mayoral nomination for the NPA in Vancouver. Then, in the last provincial election, Clark lost her own seat in Vancouver-Point Grey.

Right now the Liberals have just four seats in the city, including ministers Andrew Wilkinson and Suzanne Anton. The NDP have six and the currently vacant riding of Vancouver-Mount Pleasant has long been an NDP stronghold.

"Governments are elected to govern for everyone, but it's not like they treat everyone's policy preferences identically," added Moscrop. "The question is, whose policy interests get represented and how does it tend to correlate to what sorts of people are voting for us."

Transit referendum hinted at bigger issues

The transit referendum was Minister Stone's first open spat with the City of Vancouver.

Following the decisive No vote, Metro Vancouver mayors placed part of the blame on a lack of support from the province. The provincial government responded by stating that securing the funding was up to the municipalities, and that the B.C. Liberals had already pledged its third of the costs.

The transit referendum was one of the biggest signs that there was conflict between the City of Vancouver and the province. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

But it won't be the last. Public consultations are under way to build a new St. Paul's Hospital. The billion-dollar project is moving from Vancouver's downtown and into a provincially-owned lot right near where the viaducts now stand.

"It's very difficult to figure out where our considerations fit into the mix. I am hopeful we can get together and address the concerns we think are very important," added Stone.

The vitriol over the viaducts foreshadows what the City of Vancouver should expect from now on with any major projects, namely that the provincial government is going to have its say.

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