Jim Routledge might have failed in his effort to become the mayor of Nanaimo in the recent election, but he’s still pushing ahead with his key campaign plank of building a bridge to Newcastle Island.
Routledge said he consulted with Snuneymuxw First Nation Chief Douglas White III prior to registering as a candidate in the election to seek out SFN’s position, which was favourable to the idea.
Newcastle Island is a provincial marine park, and is managed by SFN in partnership with the province and City of Nanaimo. It is only accessible by boat, including a regular ferry service.
Routledge said he believes the park is an untapped economic driver in Nanaimo and has potential to be as popular as Vancouver’s Stanley Park.
“I was really happy with what happened during the election campaign with respect to the feedback I got and the support for the idea,” said Routledge. “But by losing the election I failed to deliver my mandate to Chief White and that was to bring back the idea of building a bridge to Newcastle Island.”
In 1986, the Newcastle Island Pavilion Society, of which Routledge was manager, received a $50,000 grant for the Heritage Concept Development and Feasibility Assessment to find an effective way to acknowledge the island’s rich historical past and recreational opportunities.
Though even at that point a bridge to Newcastle had been discussed for some time, the report still warned against any kind of fixed structure that would provide access.
“Although [a bridge] would eliminate, or at least assist the access problem, it would also alter the island’s status thereby reducing the overall appeal. The island is close enough to Nanaimo to be easily accessed by water and this should remain the sole form of access,” the report said.
“In other words, no bridge,” said Bill Merilees, current secretary of the Newcastle Island Society. “The simple solution is staring us in the face and that is to improve the ferry system, possibly by incorporating it into the transit system much like the Seabus in Vancouver.”
The Newcastle Island Society’s stance is ‘no bridges, tunnels, tubes or causeways’ to Newcastle Island.
“The society is interested in better access for sure, and that is the main thing, but everybody talks about cost and when you’re talking about bridges you’re talking about a lot of money,” said Merilees. “And adding more visitors leaves the island open to all kinds of abuse. When you have a ferry you have some control over this and I think control is needed.”
Routledge said it is far too early to determine where money might come from to build a bridge, or even if there is local appetite or political will to have one.
To address the flow of marine and float plane traffic, he points to a bridge in Buenos Aires called the Lady Bridge, a cantilevered spar cable-stayed bridge that opens like a gate in a fence, allowing marine traffic through.
“It’s going to take some time for people to realize this isn’t a pipe dream,” he said. “It’s totally doable. The Lady Bridge, and I’ve been there, is my inspiration.”
White couldn’t be reached for comment, but in a Facebook conversation with Routledge, the Snuneymuxw chief confirmed he was approached by Routledge and that the band was onside with a bridge to attract more visitors.
Merilees said while First Nations input is important, it is only one point of view when dealing with land that is designated a provincial marine park and that a management agreement to operate the park does not result in the ability to dictate provincial policy.
“We understand the interests of First Nations and we’re not asking they be excluded, they should be included, but right now the tail is wagging the dog and it’s not benefitting really anybody,” he said.
Newcastle Island Society is also working to have the island designated as a national historic site to acknowledge two of the areas oldest coal mines, a saltery, sandstone quarry, pulpstone quarry, and the last of the Canadian Pacific dance hall pavilions, which could further complicate efforts to build a bridge.
“We have no authority as a society,” said Merilees. “We’re just trying to put forth a plausible and feasible and reasonable solution to the situation.”
For his part, Routledge said he will continue to pursue the idea of a bridge until one is built or it is determined one isn’t wanted.
“First and foremost, people have to make it clear that they want it,” he said. “”I’m already looking ahead to 2014.”