04 February 2005

Outside the Box - The Stunnel

Call it the Stunnel.

If the Channel Tunnel became the Chunnel, then the name for our fixed link makes sense. Stunnel is also a good name for an idea that is pretty stunned when you look at it a little more carefully.

A couple of Scandinavian social scientists wrote a book last year called Megaprojects and Risk. After studying a bunch of European projects like the Chunnel, they came to a set of surprising conclusions: first they found that proponents grossly overestimate the benefits of their Big Idea. Second, proponents grossly underestimate all the costs.

Consider the Stunnel idea. According to the Stunnel web site, the project would cost $1.3 billion or thereabouts. It would need an average of 1400 cars traveling across it per day, with a peak of 3, 000 per day, in order to be viable. Proponents also claim it would produce upwards of 40, 000 direct and indirect job during construction, although this would last for a total of 3 years. Using the ever popular argument, proponents say the Stunnel would be an engineering marvel and attract tourists from around the world.

Let’s just look at the traffic flow. Right now, the main surface carriers are Marine Atlantic and Oceanex who between them carry 882 vehicles per day into the province. Even if we closed those two carriers and forced everyone to use the Stunnel, we’d still only have 63% of our break-even average. Obviously, we need more people to use the Stunnel.

Tourism, you say? Well, consider that the largest number of tourists come to the more populated areas of the country. For Newfoundland and Labrador, that means that surface travelers come through Atlantic Canada and cross the ferry to add Newfoundland to a tour. Would they come through one of the most desolate parts of Quebec to get here? Doubtful. As for those engineer groupies, think of how many tunnels Kierans and company say have been built in warmer places? If I loved holes in the ground, the last place I’d go to see one is the Straits of Belle Isle where it is freezing cold in June.

Right from the start, the very reason for building the Stunnel – lower costs owing to large usage - goes out the window. Even if we forced everyone to use the Stunnel, and allowed some reasonable rates of growth in traffic, it would be years, maybe decades, before there was enough traffic to meet the break-even traffic numbers Kierans says his project will need from the beginning.

Consider our own recent experience. The Tobin government started building a road around the southern coast of Labrador to meet up, ultimately, with the highway out of Labrador City. There were plenty of promises of great benefits. Already, we have found that shipping goods to northern Labrador ports is more costly than sending them from Lewisporte. The roads can’t be kept open to traffic in winter, and if that wasn’t bad enough, we already know from the Auditor General and PriceWaterhouseCoopers that the province can’t maintain its existing roads.

There are already signs that Labrador is coming more closely connected to Quebec than the island. The Stunnel would link the whole province to Quebec via an isolated stretch of road. We’d move away from the short routes to our historic partners in the Maritimes and New England and link up with Quebec City. That’s a big strategic implication that can’t be overlooked.

As for cost, we have only seen the beginning of the escalations. The proposal is only a couple of years old and already Kierans and company have tripled the costs. The $1.3 billion project that Danny Williams bought into three years ago is already estimated to cost $4.3 billion. Megaproject proponents grossly underestimate costs. They’ve shown that already. As for traffic flows, the higher the cost, the more cars we need to make it pay. If we don’t have enough traffic to support the first cost estimate, where are the cars coming from to support a project three times as costly?

-srbp-

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Would they come through one of the most desolate parts of Quebec to get here? Doubtful."

Actually, if the Quebec government does go ahead with the extension of the 138 between Natashquan and Old Fort -- and it's not an "if" at all, when Hydro-Qu├ębec proceeds with the Mecatina hydro project -- this route would be shorter and cheaper to drive to Newfoundland, from most points in Canada west of Quebec City, than the Marine Atlantic/Maritimes route... WITH OR WITHOUT A FIXED LINK.


"The roads can’t be kept open to traffic in winter"

One segment can't be (the section that local advise told WST NOT to build over), on the higher elevations between Red Bay and Lodge Bay. There are no untoward problems with keeping the rest open; the rest has trees, for the most part.


"There are already signs that Labrador is coming more closely connected to Quebec than the island. The Stunnel would link the whole province to Quebec via an isolated stretch of road. We’d move away from the short routes to our historic partners in the Maritimes and New England and link up with Quebec City. That’s a big strategic implication that can’t be overlooked."

Is it a BAD strategic implication? Historic schmistoric; with or without a Strunnel, the route to/from Newfoundland via the Labrador Straits makes sense; with or without a Strunnel, Labrador is going to depend more and more on the direct route via Quebec. Yes, some Newfoundland oxen will be gored, but why should Labrador have to pay for shipment via a longer route and two ferries (with one of those ferries subsidized by Everyone Else)?

Newfoundland should be embracing, with open arms, the idea of a second major ground portal to/from the island (ignoring Argentia and direct shipping, most importantly to St. John's, for the moment.) I'm sure the Northern Peninsula could use the spinoff economic activity, as can southern Labrador. And it would end the mentality that "the province" (i.e., the island of Newfoundland) is "hostage" to Marine Atlantic.

One less thing to gripe about, perhaps? Maybe that's why the PWG crowd are so hostile... And one MORE thing for that government in St. John's to have to build in Labrador; let's see them inside of five years going to Ottawa to have Marine Atlantic take the Straits service over!


"As for cost, we have only seen the beginning of the escalations. The proposal is only a couple of years old and already Kierans and company have tripled the costs. The $1.3 billion project that Danny Williams bought into three years ago is already estimated to cost $4.3 billion."

Ah, they finally admitted it?

None of my comments above negate my agreement with your main point: a Strunnel is fantasyland. I can't wait for DW to finally release the "prefeasability study" that's been sitting on his desk since November.

However, a second Newfoundland ferry terminal at St. Barbe, linking to an improved Quebec-Labrador highway system, is a transportation revolution waiting to happen. And who knows, perhaps the ferry fleet that can operate nearly 12 months on the Strait of Belle Isle can even be built in Newfoundland...

WJM

Ed Hollett said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

The only point I'd take issue with is the historic connections. My perspective was, admittedly, based on the island portion of the province. To completely reorient that portion would be, I think, a strategic blunder. We dould move farther away from our historic ties (political, social and economic) along the Eastern seaboard of the continent and instead relocate our suppliers to Quebec City.

Those same implicatio don't hold true in Labrador and I see no reason to force Labradorians to do anything but travel and be supplied by the most efficient means possible. Maintaining strong ties between labrador and the island portion of the province will depend on more than a bridge or tunnel of a physical kind. There will have to be - there must be- due attention paid to the legitimate aspirations of Labradorians.