Under Liberals, big projects often double in cost

Under BC Liberals, big projects often double in cost…Why would Site C Dam be any different?

Under BC Liberals, big projects routinely double in budget...Why would Site C be any different
Seeing red: The roof on BC Place Stadium is just one of many cost overruns on the BC Liberals’ watch

Oh, for the days of the fast ferries…compared to what we have now.

Most British Columbians will recall Premier Glen Clark’s late 1990’s boondoggle, which saw the construction of three new coastal vessels balloon from a projected $210 million to nearly $460 million.

How could we forget? After the relentless salvos from pundits like Vaughan Palmer and Mike Smyth led to the NDP government’s collapse, in every election cycle since, the incumbent BC Liberals have dragged out these ghost ships to bolster their own economic credentials. To Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark, the fast ferries are the gift that keeps on giving.

Liberal fiscal record sets new lows

The Fast ferries scandal sank the NDP
The Fast ferries scandal sank the NDP

The only problem is the Liberals’ own fiscal fiascos absolutely dwarf those of their NDP predecessors – though they’re consistently able to get away with it.

Sure, Mr. Palmer has poked holes in the government’s laughable election promise of a debt-free BC and raised red flags over the government’s routine cost overruns, but the pundits’ knives have been decidedly less sharp over the past 13 years. Unlike the NDP, Liberal governments face no real consequences for their misdeeds.

With the Liberals on track to double the $34 Billion provincial debt they inherited from what history would now suggest was a surprisingly restrained NDP, it’s high time for an update to their fiscal report card. (That debt doesn’t even include an additional $100 Billion in contractual taxpayer obligations, like private power contracts, which they’ve swept under rug).

This is especially important with projects like the $8 Billion proposed Site C Dam currently under review (and if you believe that sticker price, I’ve got some pond-front property in northern Alberta you may be interested in).

In the real world, budgets don’t double

On that last point, Fort St. John businessman Bob Fedderly put the Liberals’ woeful record of project management in perspective when I interviewed him recently about Site C, which he and a growing number of businesspeople are opposed to.

“If you look back over the last 10 or 12 years to every project of any magnitude, it’s ballooned right out of proportion – two times, three times is not uncommon,” Fedderly noted. “This is a pattern that’s appearing on project cost management.”

Contrasting the government’s track record with his own companies’ construction projects, he acknowledged a 10% margin for error was acceptable – but no more than that.

[quote]In the real world of people building houses, they don’t double in price.[/quote]

How bad is the government’s legacy with major capital projects? Pretty darned awful. Here are a few lowlights:

1. Port Mann Bridge/Hwy 1 widening: 550% of initial estimate

Artist's drawing of new Port Mann Bridge
Artist’s drawing of new Port Mann Bridge

According to The Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation, “Originally, the government said the cost of improvements to the Port Mann would be $600 million. That ballooned to $1.5 billion in 2006 when the government announced it would twin the bridge. Now, the total cost of the project is expected to be $3.3 billion” (that’s $2.46 Billion, rising to $3.3 Billion including operation and maintenance costs).

Extra demerits for a serious design flaw that led to falling ice bombs, putting passengers at risk and ringing up $400,000 in insurance claims for ICBC.

2.  BC Place Stadium roof upgrade: 514% of initial estimate

While the official line is that the upgrade to BC Place Stadium skyrocketed from $365 to $514 million, a January 2008 letter from operator PAVCO’s Chairman David Podmore to Vancouver City Manager Judy Rogers pegged the total cost at just $100 million. I’m no architect, but that seems like a reasonable price, whereas $514 million does not. After all, Seattle built a perfectly good stadium for its Seahawks in 2002 for just $360 million. All we got is a roof.

Extra demerits for design flaws which restricted the retractable roof’s ability to…well, retract.

3. Northwest Transmission Line: 182% of initial estimate

Crown corporation BC Hydro’s construction of the Northwest Transmission Line – designed to power an assortment of proposed mines in the Sacred Headwaters region of the province – has nearly doubled from initial estimates of $404 million to the most recent tally of $736 million (expect the final number to be considerably higher).

Extra demerits for management error that could cost BC $130 million in federal “green infrastructure” support for the project. The Liberal government received the grant to electrify the village of Iskut, getting it off diesel power. All the province had to do was file a plan for the spur with the feds by June 30, 2012 – but it missed its deadline by nearly a year, meaning that, technically, the BC public is on the hook to repay the entire $130 million.

4. Vancouver Convention Centre: 178% of initial estimate

The Vancouver Convention Centre (Wikipedia)
The Vancouver Convention Centre (Wikipedia)

For all its LEED certifications and architectural attributes, the Vancouver Convention Centre also exploded from estimates of under $500 million to nearly $900 million by its 2009 completion.

What’s worse, all this could have been avoided if the Liberal government simply followed its own critique of the NDP’s fast ferries experience – namely, not having people without construction experience overseeing the project (i.e. Liberal powerbroker Ken Dobell) and being sure to have finalized plans for the contractor to execute. Lacking the latter, a fixed-price contract proved impossible to nail down.

5. South Fraser Perimeter Road: 169% of initial estimate

Perhaps the only way for the Liberal government to assert it’s on time and on budget with a major project is to lie about it, as this unnecessary, convoluted truck highway through Delta and Surrey demonstrates. Laila Yuile, a blogger and one of the province’s shrewdest transportation project watchdogs, recalled last year that initial estimates for the project ranged from $700-800 million.


By the time it was completed in 2013, it was a year late and the cost had risen to $1.264 Billion – significantly more than a revised estimate of around a billion dollars. But that didn’t stop the government from boasting that its project was “on time and on budget”. As Vaughan Palmer quipped at the time, “Regular readers of this space will be familiar with the more flexible approach that the B.C. Liberals have taken toward the concept of being on time and on budget.”

Why won’t the NDP stand up for itself?

Perhaps the biggest mystery in all of this is the NDP opposition’s failure to call the government out for its dismal fiscal record. How “Mr. Nice Guy” Adrian Dix saw fit to let the Liberals off the hook for this series of blunders that make the fast ferry overruns look like pocket change is baffling. It cost them the last election, as I noted in the aftermath of that sorry affair.

Liberal record a harbinger of Site C boondoggle

Alberta concerned about downstream impacts of BC's Site C Dam proposal
Proposed Site C Dam on Peace River

These numbers and examples of the Liberals’ fiscal ineptitude should be of real concern to BC taxpayers today as we ponder projects like Site C Dam – whose $8 Billion estimate (making it one of the highest-priced  government infrastructure undertakings in Canadian history) is surely only the tip of the iceberg. Dams, as a rule, are highly prone to cost overruns – the World Bank estimates an average of 27% around the globe.

This is a project that will not serve the homes and businesses of BC, which are already self-sufficient in electricity far into the foreseeable future – rather, we’re told it’s to power liquefied natural gas production or to export to California (likely at a considerable loss for some time).

When you factor in the usual Liberal premium of doubling the cost, it’s not hard to see how this dam could sink us in more ways than one.


About Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.

30 thoughts on “Under BC Liberals, big projects often double in cost…Why would Site C Dam be any different?

  1. They must hold the contractor to the original price. They should set up deadlines and fine the contractor for each day its late. It happens all the time in the private world. Otherwise the contractors will feed from the cash trough the government puts out. It will also ensure honest quotes and limit low ball quote to make projects more politically appeasing to the public.

    I am also at a loss why tax payers should pay to provide big business electricity. I had to pay to lay lines that were non existent for my small business site to the tune of thousands. Why should taxpayers keep funding big business when we never reap the promised rewards.

  2. I have all the power I need and am trying to reduce why do I need to pay for power for new customers?

  3. Great reminder Damien. It is difficult to understand how the NDP could be so accommodating spectators when noisy indignation is called for.

    I guess it reminds us all of the song. “Heh big Spender”. As long as voters think there is the chance they will somehow be enriched by these kind of projects they will continue to give the “guessers”, as defined by Kurt Vonnegut, the vote.

  4. They assume power demand in BC will rise, hence the need for Site C.

    Why would power demand rise? As hydro rates go up every year, people and businesses will find ways to cut back, with LEDs for example.

    Power demand will probably go down. The LNG thing looks like a bust.

    1. Indeed, Hugh. The reality is power consumption is flatlining in the province. We’re using roughly the same amount of electricity today as we were when the Liberals came to power, despite considerable population increase and the proliferation of energy-intensive household gadgets.

      The assertion that power demand will automatically increase because, well, it just will is dangerous dogma. BC Hydro – under pressure from its government masters – has routinely overestimated future power demand by double digits for decades, as Erik Andersen has demonstrated in these pages:


      In Hydro’s recent demand forecast (its Integrated Resource Plan), it continued this trend with wild-eyed predictions of future demand:


      With the BC Utilities Commission stripped of its oversight of Site C – which would focus heavily on the issue of need – these important questions are not being asked:


      The issue you raise of the downward pressure of skyrocketing power bills on consumption was not properly addressed in the JRP hearings into the dam either…


  5. At least the fastcat ferries had a happy ending.

    After Gordo displayed them prominently for years in dry dock, Washington Marine ‘bought’ them for $19 million ($6 million below scrap value), then flipped them to the kingdom of Abu Dhabi for an unreported $600 million, where they still operate and generate good incomes for their owners.

    Washington Marine also got the property the cats were marooned on and today are principals in some lucrative BC based ship building enterprises.

    1. The construction jobs and money also stayed in BC, unlike the ferries built under the Liberals that were contracted out to Germany, with considerable issues…

      1. Correct Damien.

        In fact it was the Washington Group who built them. Whose CEO was drinking buddies with Campbell whom worked hand in hand to clobber the NDP with this file.

        They made approximately twenty Million in profit building them. So essentially they built them for themselves, as Campbell flipped them back to them as Ron points out.

        And of course Ron is correct that the Washington Group then sold them for untold millions to oil wealth in the Middle East where they still function today and the media ignores all that.

        Good work if you can get it eh? Build three ships for yourself, destroy a government in so doing, so your friend can replace it and then sell the ships for millions in more profit, but at least in the end the jobs were in BC as you point out.

        Unlike the German built ones and the just announced three new ones to be built in Poland.

        Good piece, underscoring this aspect of the hypocrisy and double standard that exists in this Province between the two rival parties on public projects. Rest assured that the trend exists throughout the entire realm of public sector politics and management.

  6. Why won’t / didn’t the NDP fight back and stand up for British Columbians — there were so many boodoogles to bring forward: ICBC, Outsourcing contracts, education, health care, etc: I am still asking myself that question. How did Christy Clark managed to get herself elected with all of the fiscal messes she’s made. Perhaps because Dix just wasn’t smart enough to understand how much or how far the Liberals would go to stay in government. The NDP, in opposition, can only do so much. It is the citizenry of British Columbia that must stand up for itself. BC Ferries: the Liberals are sinking this service so it can be dismantled and there is little or no resistance. Jobs are being outsourced to TFW — people continue to do business as usual. Lack of support for publicly funded education for our children and grandchildren. All the while Christy Clark hands out money to supporters and friends in the way of contracts and pay raises, the media gives this very little attention. And next year we will all be happy that we have two new ferries, regardless of the fact that those cold have been BC jobs So, I think we can continue to call out the NDP for its dismal performance in the last election but that’s over. The ultimate game in town is CITIZENS MUST BE KEPT INFORMED ABOUT THE CONSEQUENCES OF LIBERAL POLICIES AND THEIR EFFECT ON THE ENVIRONMENT, SOCIAL PROGRAMS, EDUCATION, TRANSPORTATION, AND JOBS. And, WITH THE MEDIA ON SIDE WITH A LIBERAL GOVERNMENT– there is little hope of having an informed electorate when media outlets and writers want SENSATIONAL STORIES AND ARE ALWAYS LOOKING BACKWARDS…

    1. It was a combination of the ndp being inept and the media not reporting on the liberals missteps . Also the media perpetuating the myth that the ndp was so far ahead they could coast to a win. Lazy dipshits stayed home on election day and the comeback kid swept to victory with 20% of the vote. The system works!

  7. Won’t Aboriginal land claims, citizen uprisings and legalities delay or stop the whole thing? Fingers crossed.

    1. While Treaty 8 territory – where the proposed dam would be located – has different characteristics than the unceded lands that constitute most of the province, the Tsilhqot’in decision has certainly bolstered Treaty 8’s opposition to Site C. If the province is smart, it will listen very carefully to these First Nations’ concerns – though all indications, past and present, are that it won’t…

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