Monday, February 27, 2012

Pattullo On-Ramp Consultation

I attended one of TransLink's open houses on the Pattullo bridge replacement last Tuesday night, at the Centennial Community Center.

Translink had seriously underestimated the turnout and had booked too small a room. There was standing room only and the room was so full that "consultation" was difficult as the noise levels were very high. At my table, one of the older gentlemen was unable to participate because of it. I really hope this is addressed at further open houses.

The session was quite disappointing; there was far too little time for questions and we were immediately herded to "breakout" tables to view "options". It turned out, however, that the options presented had basically nothing to do with the bridge. It was a consultation session about on-ramps!

There was absolutely no discussion regarding the bridge itself; it was in fact conspicuously absent from any of the aerial view maps we looked at. The on-ramps fed directly into the Fraser! You can have a look at some of the options on the TransLink website. Some are truly fanciful, with multi-level stacks of ramps turning the lower half of McBride into an 8-lane road. The most modest ones strongly resemble what is there now, with changes to one single ramp that will blow away the homes on Dufferin and Coburg streets. One important point to note is that the bridge will have no direct connections to Columbia or Front streets. Traffic will be funneled to Royal, McBride, and East Columbia.

The question on most folks' minds is of course, tolling: will this bridge be tolled, or not? Unfortunately, this was not answered; the question was put aside with the statement that "funding will be discussed at a later time". It is clear, however, that there is no funding for the bridge available right now; it appears that Translink wants to work out a design that everyone's happy with first, and then worry about the money. The bridge is estimated to cost about $1B.

However, the question of tolling is an important one. Tolling is not just fund-raising. It is an important way of choking traffic, which, in turn, will drive the design of the bridge. This is a decision which must be made up-front, in order to predict traffic levels! In fact, when questioned in private afterwards, Mr. Zein (the Director of Roads for TransLink) admitted that the traffic projections presented were all done under the premise of tolling.

It appears, then, Translink is planning for a tolled Pattullo. This will, of course, be unpopular in Surrey.

Another big question that everyone really wanted an answer to, was the number of lanes on the new bridge, and what the justification was for this number. TransLink appears to have settled on a 6-lane structure, but this was not clearly stated during the presentation (likely because this notion is not popular in New Westminster). After some digging on their website, it appears that the main reason for discounting a four-lane bridge is that the connectivity on the Surrey side, to the new SFPR, would not work as well, and would not accommodate the increased volume of trucks (here, see page 70). I note that the "congestion" remarks in this report are focused on the Surrey end; there is no discussion of how congestion in New West is to be "improved" by a 6-lane bridge.

In fact, I find it hard to see how a 6-lane bridge would be an improvement for New Westminster. New Westminster roads cannot be widened to accommodate the traffic increase (in stark contrast to the Surrey end). A 6-lane bridge, with a projected 50% more cars and 100% more trucks, will lead directly onto the existing roads: Royal and McBride; which will become even busier than they are already (if that is possible!). Lovely smooth flowing ramps will not help speed up traffic. Is this really the best way to spend our tax dollars?

My biggest concern with this bridge is that it is being designed for a future that will not arrive. I honestly do not believe that in 40 years from now, our economy will be dependent on vehicle traffic the way it is today. Oil is getting more expensive and the supply is not increasing. This will have a huge impact on traffic within the next few decades. The Port and the trucking industry are, unfortunately, not looking this far out...they are demanding infrastructure for a 10-year horizon, at best. We need to start investing in a low-oil future, one with much more public transit, an active river transport system, and more rail. If we are not careful, we will have wasted a billion dollars on a bridge that will not serve our needs in the future. It would be better to build small and to spend the rest of the money on transit, thereby forcing the Port and the trucking industry to adapt to alternative means of moving goods around.

More open-houses are planned with Translink and I you should attend to make your feelings known - and not about whether the bridge should be up- or down-stream of the current one! New Westminster City will also be providing chances for public input, as the Master Transportation Plan will need to include ways of dealing with traffic from the new Pattullo.

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